MHPD chief says Scot Smithee’s experience gives him familiarity with public safety challenges facing region
Published in the August 30 – September 12, 2017 issue of Morgan Hill Life
To the blare of bagpipes, Scot Smithee was escorted by an honor guard to the front of New Hope Community Church. Standing before peers, dignitaries and members of the public, he raised his right hand and swore he would “well and faithfully discharge the duties” of Gilroy’s new police chief. Soon after, his wife Brenda pinned his badge on him and he gave her a quick kiss.
Smithee, 53, admitted at his Aug. 2 swearing-in ceremony he felt a strong reluctance at the thought of leading the Gilroy Police Department when the opportunity came up. Two years ago, he retired at the rank of captain after 29 years of public safety service for the city. When he stepped in as interim chief after Police Chief Denise Turner retired Dec. 30, he believed it was only a temporary job until a new department leader was found.
“The whole idea of coming back out of retirement was just a foreign concept to me,” he told the crowd who came to the ceremony. “I did not see myself doing that. As people early on in my interim process would talk to me about the possibility, I would say, ‘No, not doing it. Retirement is great. My wife and I are traveling and doing all these great things.’ And the ‘No, no, no’ got to ‘Well, I’ll think about it.’”
Morgan Hill Police Chief David Swing, who attended the swearing-in, said that Smithee’s more than 30 years of law enforcement experience gives him a familiarity with the challenges facing the various communities in the South Valley and make him a strong asset and partner in public safety.
“I know that in Scot, much like with Denise, we have a law enforcement partner who is solution-focused and makes decisions in the best interest of our region,” Swing said.
As Gilroy’s top cop, Smithee now leads a department of 66 sworn officers and 40 professional staff running on a $25 million budget. City Administrator Gabriel Gonzalez told the audience that he believes there is no more important position to fill in city management than the selection of a police chief who can provide 24/7 operations to protect residents and property.
“He’s responsible for the safety of all of our residents,” Gonzalez said. “He carries that burden on his shoulders and in leading the men and women of his department.”
During the course of several months, the city engaged in an intensive recruitment process opened to applicants across the nation.
Residents representing various segments of the Gilroy community as well as city employees provided input on what they wanted in their next police chief. An outreach program invited input through forums and surveys.
The community said the traits desired in a new police chief include “inclusive of diversity,” “embrace our community,” “engage with local problems,” “build relationships with the community and stakeholders,” “high degree of integrity,” “respectful of our residents,” and “strong communication and public relations skills.”
Smithee demonstrated these traits with the proven leadership he showed working with the men and women of the police department, Gonzalez said. On the city administrator’s recommendation, the Gilroy City Council appointed Smithee as Gilroy’s seventh police chief at its June 19 meeting.
“He is held in high regard and is well respected in the police department,” Gonzalez said. “He holds himself and the men and women that he is responsible for to high standards of integrity and a high degree of accountability.”
A demonstration of that character in Smithee was shown early this year when members of the Latino community grew worried about possible roundups of immigrants by the U.S. Department of Homeland Security’s Immigration and Customs Enforcement, a politically sensitive issue.
“Scot reached out to pockets of the community that most had those fears and built those relationships with them,” Gonzalez said. “That is indicative of Scot’s leadership. He is well-respected among his peers and the department directors in the city.”
Smithee described his applying for the police chief job as a “very difficult personal decision” because of the way it affects his family. He and Brenda have four adult daughters.
“The family impact was the greatest,” he said. “In talking about this impact to the family, it just felt like the right thing to do. All different levels of the city government, process, the county groups that I was working with, the community groups that I was engaged with since coming back, that is why and how that decision was made.”
Former City Manager Jay Baksa and Smithee had a talk about the decision.
“He pulled me aside when I was thinking about doing this job,” Smithee said. “He was a mentor and kept telling me, ‘You know, Scot, sometimes it’s not about the money, and it’s not about this and it’s not about that. It just feels like the right time and it’s your time.’”
At the ceremony, the new police chief told a story about his childhood where he learned an important lesson about integrity and respect.
“I remember going home to my mom and I had heard this joke that would be considered completely inappropriate by today’s standards — and probably by those day’s standards, too,” he said. “And I thought it was so funny that I told my mom this joke.”
Instead of laughing, she was very upset with her child for telling the crude joke. They had a talk about why that type of humor was not right.
“What she taught me was values, and how to treat people and that all people are important and it doesn’t matter what your background is, it doesn’t matter what your race is, and what your religious beliefs are,” he said. “Having that foundation as a boy all the way up into adulthood is extremely important in developing into the person you are. And so, mom, I thank you for that.”
At the ceremony, retired Police Chief Denise Turner told Smithee of her admiration of his leadership skills in stepping into the job and the quality of the people he works with in the department.
“You know how wonderful the men and women are who work here,” she said. “You also know what great support we have from city staff and city council and our mayor, so this is really a dream job. And that’s probably the only way you would want to come out of retirement is to inherit this great organization back.”
Gilroy Mayor Roland Velasco told the audience that Smithee has shown a dedication to the Gilroy community in nearly three decades he worked as a police officer in the city.
“He possesses the right combination of law enforcement skills. Obviously, if he didn’t have that he wouldn’t be selected as police chief,” he said. “But more importantly, he is respected by his peers, and he has the leadership ability to move the department forward. I’m confident that Chief Smithee will be a visible, accessible, responsive, and as transparent as possible.”
Smithee finished his remarks with a promise: “My commitment to you and to the community is that I’m going to do the best damn job I can do. I feel like I have the energy, I feel like I have the vision of where we need to be going and what we need to do to deal with things that are going on in society today.”