Catholic faith shapes St. Paul police chief’s leadership style

| September 8, 2010 | 0 Comments
Thomas Smith

Thomas Smith

St. Paul Police SWAT Team Com­man­der Tom Smith had to rely on his Catholic faith when he found his good friend, St. Paul Police Sgt. Jerry Vick, shot and killed in May 2005. “I had to make sure my mind was in the right place,” he said in an interview with Pat Norby, The Catholic Spirit news editor. “It was my Catholic faith that allowed me to get through that difficult situation that night, to find those suspects, and do the right thing.”

Smith was sworn in June 15 as St. Paul’s chief of police. He said he has always turned to his Catholic faith to support his work as a civil servant, which officially began in 1989 as an officer with the St. Paul Police Depart­ment. Smith and his wife, Catalina, are members of St. Matthew in St. Paul, where they raised three children: Thomas, 30; DeAna, 25; and Cassandra, 19. The Smiths live in the St. Paul home they purchased from his parents, the late Walter and Jean Smith.

How did you develop such a strong connection to St. Paul and St. Matthew parish and school?

I love the things I learned at school and have worked on St. Matthew’s scholarship committee so they can give out scholarships and not turn anybody away. . . . I think the education students get there is second to none.

There is a picture in St. Matthew’s news­letter, The Good News, of many alums who are involved with law en­forcement. My administrative aide, Julia, and I were in the same grade at St. Mat­­thew.

There were a lot of people that went to St. Matthew’s that became police officers. Five of us are cops in the St. Paul Police Depart­ment.

The parish school has produced quite a number of civil servants. Why is that?

I think it’s because of the moral values that we learned there.

In my neighborhood, there were cops and firefighters that lived with their families near our house. We all went to St. Matthew’s. You’d see each other in church and in school and you thought, “Our dads do this job. That’s probably a pretty cool profession.”

What we learned at school helped us to understand that there is a greater good, and you have to give back to others.

How has your Catholic faith shaped you as a civil servant?

It gives me a strong moral compass. The moral values I learned — doing the right thing and helping others — have shaped my core values for how I operate as a police officer.

I’ve always had some sensitive, crazy assignments. Besides being a SWAT commander, I was in the narcotics and gang unit. I’ve been exposed to a lot of bad things, not just locally, but on a national and international level.

I think my faith grounds me, like when police officers in our department were killed, including very close friends and my first partner on the job, Jerry Vick. It’s my faith that helps me get through those tough times. . . .

I tell young officers there is a lot of times you are involved in this toxic environment. You have to have a balance.

I believe my faith helps me understand there is a greater good. Bad things are going to happen, but how you respond to those things shapes you as a person.

Some people in our profession end up being cynics because there are so many bad things they see. I’m an eternal optimist. No matter how bad the situation, I always try to take something good from it. That is how my faith comes into play.

How is your Catholic faith reflected in your leadership style?

I think my Catholic faith has taught me to be compassionate and to show empathy toward others.

When people call us, they need our service, they need some help. It’s not always arresting somebody. It may be a family that had a tragedy.

I believe in giving back — my wife and I both. My wife is a volunteer at the Boys and Girls Clubs and works with a lot of disadvantaged youth.

That’s where her heart is.

I work with disadvantaged kids through a mentor program at Humboldt High School. I have 50 kids in the program, and this will be our fourth year. I help recruit the mentors. We have 32 mentors, and we work with young people through­out the city. I also serve on the Neighborhood House board of directors.

What values do you bring to your new position as St. Paul’s chief of police?

Giving back, compassion and empathy toward others — that in­cludes tough love.

You have to do the right thing and you have to have good ethics. I think ethical integrity in our profession is important.

How does your faith help you when you return to your family after dealing with less pleasant elements of society?

I pray a lot.

I’ve put my family through a lot. I’ve had friends that lost their life. I’ve had people try to take my life and other officers’ lives.

Because my family grew up in a Catholic environment, we’re able to talk about different things. . . . A lot of old timers didn’t share with their family. But you have to be able to share something.

I had a bad day a couple of days ago, and I went home and I told my wife that I had a bad day, so she could understand why I wasn’t as chipper as I usually am. A long time ago I might not have done that.

I’ve learned how to balance that, and I think my faith has helped me do that.

What lessons have you learned that you hope to pass along to newer officers?

This is an honorable profession. All sorts of people help you but, as a police officer, you are on the front line and it can make a difference in the life of other people. . . .

Every day I ask one thing [of my officers]: Have a positive contact with someone you didn’t receive a police call for.

If you stop for a cup of coffee, say “Hi” to someone at the table next to you. If you see a group of kids playing on a street corner, stop the car and let the kids come up and look at your police car or give them a football card or baseball card. If you see a senior citizen out mowing their lawn, slowly stop and say “Hi.” That is something that builds trust relationships and I think that is important in our line of work.

What has been the most difficult tragedy you have faced as a law enforcement officer?

When Jerry Vick was killed in May 2005. I never shed a tear until after the funeral and heard a song Jerry liked. It took months. I didn’t want to let the human part of me out. My priest, Father Stephen Adrian, provided great support.

The Mass to honor all civil serv­ants will be Sept. 11 at the Cathe­dral of St. Paul. Do you plan to attend? What does this Mass mean to you?

Yes, the Blue Mass. I’ve been to many. St. Matthew’s does it, and it’s at the Cathedral.

It empowers officers to attend, and that is a day where you might see a few tears shed because we talk about fallen officers. . . .

It gives me personally — and I hope other officers would tell you — strength to know that, no matter how bad the situation is, God has said he will always be there for you. All you have to do is open up your heart and mind to that.

What advice do you have for anyone considering a career in law enforcement?

No. 1, they have to be committed to serving other people. That has a direct correlation to the Catholic faith.

Second, just as Jesus gave his life for us, I tell young people that they have to be committed to serving in harm’s way.

When we hire someone, we look at their moral compass, we look at ethics-based characteristics.

Blue Mass to honor all civil servants

» When: 10 a.m. Saturday, Sept. 11.
» Where: Cathedral of St. Paul, 239 Selby Ave., St. Paul.
» Celebrant: Bishop Lee Piché; reception will follow.
» More info:

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Category: Spirit of Giving