The Call of Duty

Presented with the opportunity to take the reins of the largest police force in Alabama, L.A.P.D. veteran and Tuscaloosa native Patrick Smith didn’t hesitate.

Written by Rosalind Fournier

Seated at his desk in his office high up in the police headquarters downtown, Birmingham Police Chief Patrick Smith reaches behind him and picks up an old police baton—or maybe “billy club” is more descriptive—and shakes his head. “I went to our police academy,” Smith says, “and I found that this is what we were issuing our new recruits. This thing should be in some kind of museum. It’s offensive. I don’t want any of our officers using that or stepping out of the police car with that.”

In Smith’s mind, the billy club was a perfect symbol for the ways he felt the Birmingham Police Department was lagging behind its counterparts in other cities in its approach, technology, training, and sheer number of officers in recent years—a period in which homicides in Birmingham doubled, helping to put Birmingham at number five on Forbes’ list of most dangerous U.S. cities.

But Smith wasn’t here during that precipitous climb in crime. He was in Los Angeles, where he joined the L.A.P.D. in 1990 and spent the next 28 years moving up through the ranks from patrol officer to police field training officer and instructor, sergeant, lieutenant, captain, and eventually police commander. But through all those years, Smith, a native of Tuscaloosa, always planned that one day he would return to Alabama and bring his police experience back to his home state. When the job opened up for chief of the Birmingham Police Department last year, it must have felt like fate. Smith threw his hat in the ring and was chosen from among more than 50 candidates.

Officially taking the reins in June last year, Smith has already launched a number of new initiatives to improve recruitment and retention, integrate new technologies, and strengthen community engagement, among other strategic goals.

In person, Smith is thoughtful and soft spoken, a true believer that law enforcement can and should be respectful and service oriented while doing a better job protecting public safety in the process.  He took time recently to talk about his 28 years with the L.A.P.D., his vision for the Birmingham Police Department, and his excitement to be back home.

B-Metro: Did you really always plan to come back to Alabama, even after so many years with the L.A.P.D.? 

Smith: When I entered the world of law enforcement—and a lot of people I worked with knew this—my goal was to learn everything I could about law enforcement and bring those things back to my home state of Alabama. And so being a part of the L.A.P.D. gave me great opportunities to do so. When I was over our metropolitan division there, which is our SWAT Team—canine, mounted, underwater dive team, dignitary protection and crime reduction platoons—I even traveled as far as Israel to look at major violent crime and instances where bombs were set off in public, with a number of casualties in the area, and learn what we needed to do as far as infrastructure and prevention to stop those things from happening in the United States.

Although my plan was to stay in Los Angeles another two or three years, once the opportunity presented itself, I just felt that it was imperative that I wanted to come here and try to do everything I can to try and make a difference, because this is where I’m from.

B-Metro: What was your proudest accomplishment in Los Angeles?

Smith: That this little kid from Tuscaloosa was able to go to a large city and perform to where I became part of the top one percent of a large metropolitan police department.

B-Metro: What were some of the shortcomings you found when you got to the Birmingham Police Department?

Smith: Once I arrived here, I noticed several challenges. The first one is how underpoliced the city is. The number of officers we have in the department is honestly insufficient for the size of the city that we have. We have to make a sizable investment in the police department and public safety to ensure that we can get a handle on crime, so in the plan for the department, we raised the number of officers from a goal of 900 to 1,000. That’s a good first step. In my estimation we should have between 1,100 and 1,200 officers patrolling the city, but with that, the city has to make a sizable investment in the department and decide we need to rein in the criminal activity within the city.

B-Metro: What are your other priorities?

Smith: We’ve got to have a recruitment strategy and recruitment and retention goals and make sure that we’re meeting them. We have a handle on that part right now, I believe. This next Police Academy class should be between 40 and 50 if not more, and the reason for that is we were actively engaging in recruitment and hiring people that we feel will make a difference in the city. This will be the first time the police department has had a class of over 40 in probably a decade—but that just shows the long trail of decline and not being focused on making sure that we had goals, making sure that we were hiring, and making sure that we were addressing the rate of personnel leaving the department.

Our re-hire program has allowed us to curtail attrition. We have a number of people who would have gone to other agencies that are not. We have some who left and they’re in the process of coming back. I’m swearing in people almost every week to come back to the police department, because they have an investment in this city. They love policing this city, and they wanted to come back and be a part of the police department. They like the direction that we are going.

B-Metro: How do you think the department numbers dropped so low? 

Smith: I wasn’t here, so I don’t know. It seems to be a breakdown between the needs of the department and where we were. There have been a number of things where the department is completely behind. In addition to personnel, we’re behind in terms of equipment, and we’re behind in terms of technology. (But) I think we have a city council now and mayor who are working together, and we are being supported as an agency to get the things done that are needed.

B-Metro: What are some examples of new equipment and technologies the department needs?

Smith: We should have license plate readers on our vehicles automatically running cars as you go down the street to find those vehicles that may be stolen. We don’t have that. Another thing I’m doing in terms of technology is bringing in a computerized method of patrol, and what that does is take five years of data, put it in the computer, and it looks at the date, time, and location of crimes committed, and it shows the captains of each precinct the areas or boxes that they should hit, and how much time they should spend in each area to reduce crime within the city.

B-Metro: “Community engagement” has become a catchphrase for modern policing these days, trying to break the us-versus-them dynamic that exists between the police and the citizens in some communities. Is that a priority for you?

Smith: This year I assigned one of our captains to work exclusively on community engagement, so that we are able to coordinate the department’s efforts. Each precinct has people or officers who work with community engagement. We have our school resource officers, but now we also have school days where every detective and officer in this building will go out on certain days and spend two hours or so at a school. Even if it’s just walking down the hall to say hello, it’s a way to make positive contact with students so they feel comfortable around us. If they have issues, some type of problem with bullying, or whatever comes up, they know officers are there to support them. The idea is we have to do more to break down those barriers with not just the students when they’re in school but also when they’re out of school.

This year we also had community open houses, where we opened the doors of the police department and had community activities outside and also brought people in so that they see what happens in the background of the police department. It gave them a chance to interact with the officers who are assigned to patrol their area, so that they could have one-on-one conversations about what they see and what they expect from the officers who are patrolling their area. It’s another way to make more contacts with people.

B-Metro: Do you feel like kids respond?

Smith: Well, this year also I’ve had a teen summit, and there were probably 50 teens who showed up. They were very actively involved in communicating, telling what they saw, how we can help in law enforcement, the things that they need from us, and quite frankly the things we need to look for as we patrol the streets.

Still another thing is that we’re going to start a police cadet program. Right now we hire officers at age 21. I’m changing that so we can hire them at 19 and start teaching them in the direction that they will go and what it takes to be a good officer in the community. While they may not be working the field right away, there are other things they can do in the background while being guided by a mentor and learning good working practices.

You’re able to take someone who did not have an income, they’re not sure what direction they want to go, and you’re teaching them responsibility. And they can go to college while they work or at a different time, but now they have another option when they come out of high school. I felt this was a positive way to reach out to the community, make the connection at an earlier age, give them an opportunity, and potentially change the course and scope and trajectory of their life.

B-Metro: What can police departments do to combat the kinds of controversies we’ve seen around the country around police shootings? There’s a widespread perception that people are getting killed by officers who are racist or have some other kind of bias.

Smith: In Los Angeles, we brought in Dr. Bryant Marks from Morehouse College (and founding director of the The National Institute on Race and Equity) to teach the whole department on implicit bias—how we see people, and how you sometimes draw conclusions from your own perception of people and place sometimes. Sometimes it’s right and sometimes it’s wrong.

A lot of it goes back to making sure people are trained, making sure our officers know the difference in how they see things, the importance of the law and following the law, when you can use force, when you should not use force, and just very good interview skills and ability—honing your skills and ability as an officer and the techniques that you can use as an officer to resolve things.

One thing I’ve done since I’ve been here is that now we send the Police Academy classes to the Civil Rights Institute so they can see the history of Birmingham and some of the things that occurred many years ago, and how law enforcement was used as a tool to carry out the wrong message in the community. They understand how what was done in the past still (affects) what that uniform represents to some people. So we have to be very conscious of who we are, what we represent to the community, and how we represent ourselves.

For me, in Los Angeles I policed and supervised policing down in Watts for many years. I worked foot patrols as well as on bike in some of the housing developments. So you develop a way of dealing with people and talking with people. You get the full spectrum in Los Angeles, so you manage to work the full range.

You asked earlier what I was most proud of in Los Angeles, and one of the proudest things for me is that in 28 years, there was not one citizen’s complaint that I ever received about how I treated people, how I interacted with the public, or even when people were arrested. You can arrest someone and still give them a certain level of dignity and respect. You don’t have to allow someone else’s activity to degrade the level of service that you can provide to them.

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