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Smith credits city in ascent to parks chief

by Byron Tate | June 13, 2021 at 3:24 a.m.
Delton Wright and Pam Smith, chief of police of the United States Parks Police, share a moment with a well-wisher at a recent reception Wright hosted for Smith, who is from Pine Bluff. (Pine Bluff Commercial/Byron Tate)

In February, Pamela Smith was named chief of the United States Parks Police, making her the first African American woman to lead the 230-year-old agency.

Her path to this pinnacle was hardly preordained. Born and reared in Pine Bluff, Smith had a challenging upbringing.

Smith's mother and father divorced, leaving a single woman to raise Smith and her two siblings. Her father, she said, was a "nice person," but someone who "just wasn't present."

But Smith's grandmother pitched in to help her daughter, and through the influence of strong mentors in her life and Smith's own grit, she rose to prominence.

Smith was in town earlier this month to attend an invitation-only reception at the home of Delton Wright, a former Jefferson County justice of the peace. Visitors greeted her warmly and happily stood next to her as a photographer captured the moment against a balloon-festooned backdrop.

Wright said he was honored to be able to host the reception for Smith, which included music and food as well as a proclamation from Mayor Shirley Washington. The former JP said he only learned of Smith when he read that she had been named chief of the Parks police department.

"I thought I knew everybody," Wright said with a laugh.

Smith agreed to be interviewed by The Commericial, and the next day, she spent an hour talking about her early years in Pine Bluff and those who helped make her the person she is today.

She grew up on the east side of Pine Bluff. Her mother, Eddie Mae Bass Sanders, married her father, Walter Lee Smith Sr., when the two were young. But soon they were divorced, and her father drifted out of their lives.

That left Smith's 27-year-old mother to figure out how to raise three children alone.

Help for the young mother came from Smith's grandmother, Ellatrise Bass. Smith described her mother and grandmother as strong women who loved and nurtured Smith and her siblings and pushed them to be their best.

The schools Smith attended are familiar names, although most have closed over the years as Pine Bluff's population and school enrollment have dropped: Forrest Park and Oak Park elementary schools, Southeast Middle School, Dial Junior High School and Pine Bluff High School.

Smith said her world was school and home, but home also included a neighborhood store, Ms. Ethel's, and that store provided the nexus for the community Smith grew up in or as Smith called it, "the village." In that village, she said, she was able to meet up with friends in a safe environment, and she was able to witness first hand the comings and goings of other strong women who had jobs and went to work every day.

"We needed that store," she said. "It was our foundation outside of school. We didn't know then how important it was to us and how it allowed us to be who we were."

Even with all of that support, Smith said she realized at an early age that she was going to have to find her own way.

"I knew I had to do something different," she said.

And she set about doing just that, attending the University of Arkansas at Pine Bluff and becoming the first person in her family to graduate college. During those formative years, Smith was surrounded by Jay Dickey, Andrew Butler and U.S. Grant, who would put their imprint on her.

Smith had been part of the city's Summer Youth Employment Program, which helped young people get prepared for work and find jobs. As part of that program, she walked into the Taco Bell at 28th Avenue and Olive Street as she was getting ready to start college.

She found a man lying on his back on the floor, half of him underneath an oven.

"Are you OK?" she asked, wondering if the person had collapsed.

Dickey, a Pine Bluff attorney, rolled out from under the oven he was repairing to say hello.

"He introduced himself and then asked me if I was looking for a job," Smith said.

"I would love to have a job," Smith said she told him.

Dickey told her to show up on Monday and talk to his business manager.

"And I can say, I worked at Taco Bell until I graduated college," Smith said. "Mr. Dickey was true to his word. He was a true and kind gentleman. And I was not the only one. So many UAPB alumni worked at Taco Bell. I was able to pay my bills. That's what Taco Bell did for me."

Consequently, when she hears someone ask the rhetorical question of "'What do you think you're going to do? Work at Taco Bell your whole life?' I will say, 'Hey, wait a minute.'" she said laughing. "Taco Bell was good to me."

She called Dickey a "gentle giant" and said his way of managing has stuck with her throughout her career.

"I've had so many college brothers and sisters come through Taco Bell," she said. "He gave us a place to work and he made you feel like a person. Even though he was the boss, he was not out of touch. He was always present for his employees. From the time I became a sergeant to now, as chief of police, I've taken that to heart. To this day, I am present for my employees. I've taken every aspect of how he managed into my jobs."

Throughout Smith's life, money had been tight, so tight that many extracurricular activities that cost money were simply out of reach for Smith's family. But there was track and field, she said. Uniforms were provided free and the only cost was a pair of shoes.

"So I invested myself in track," she said.

That started in high school, where Coach Butler brought out the best in her, she said. Butler, she remembers, told her to stay within herself.

"Don't let anyone get into your head," she said the coach told her. "That has translated to my life and professional career. What he was saying is that your biggest competition is yourself. I don't compete with others. I'm usually competing with myself. If I fail, I don't blame anyone. I just try a little harder. I don't make excuses. I just do what I have to do to get better. That's been my career for 23 years."

Then off to UAPB Smith went. She wanted to be on the track team but had not gotten a scholarship, but she walked on anyway, specializing in the 800 meters.

She quickly proved her mettle, becoming a three-time All American in the process. Grant, the track coach, eventually gave her a scholarship, she said, referring to him as "tough but compassionate."

"He put a lot of focus on the women's team," she said. "I think that he felt that we were young women whose parents had left us in his care. Through him, I came to understand the principles of self-worth."

She repeated it often and in different ways, but Smith said she feels a large debt of gratitude to Pine Bluff for the people and institutions that molded her.

"I owe so much to this city," she said.

Smith looks back on her more than two decade career, saying it's been "really rewarding" but "not a bed of roses." She's been a female in a male-dominated occupation, and she has navigated that professional terrain with the help of "good mentors along the way who kept me grounded."

Before her promotion, Smith was the acting police chief and only became the chief after a nationwide search. She said she has been awed by the promotion.

"It's been surreal and humbling," she said. "What it means is that there is an opportunity for someone, male or female, young or old, who maybe doesn't believe that dreams are possible. It says to me that dreams are possible."

Because Smith was the acting chief on Jan. 6, her staff got caught up in the violent uprising at the nation's capitol building, and she testified before the Senate about her agency's role.

She said the job of the parks police, which is the country's oldest uniformed law enforcement agency, in that moment was to protect several monuments in the area. She said she called in additional resources "appropriate to protect the monuments during the insurrection" and "provided support to the United States Capitol Police."

Smith said some of her staff suffered minor injuries, unlike some of the other security details that suffered more serious wounds while trying to protect the capitol. Asked how security might have been better handled that day, Smith said she called for more personnel because she knew President Trump was going to speak and that there would be a crowd gathered to hear him.

"I can only speak for my department," she said, "but I believe we had the appropriate resources to support the event and the monument grounds. I don't know what the other departments could have done differently."

Smith is 53. By regulation, she has to retire at age 57 or ask for an extension.

She said she had made a commitment to the public upon accepting the position of chief and one of those promises was to start getting body cameras on the officers in her 622-person staff to increase accountability. Her self-imposed deadline for starting the body cam rollout was 90 days, and she said she has met that goal.

"I will do it throughout our department," she said.

Reaching the chief position, she said, was something she wanted from day one.

"When we first started out, they had us put our life stories into a 'blue book,' because they were going to investigate everything about you," she said. "No stone goes unturned. In that book, they ask you what your ultimate goal in life is, and I said I wanted to be the chief of police. I wrote that 23 years ago. Many of my classmates have come to me since my promotion and said, 'We always knew you would make it.' It's been such an amazing, amazing career. This may sound trite, but I hope I'm not the last African American female to be the head of this organization."

U.S. Park Police Chief Pamela Smith. (National Park Service)
U.S. Park Police Chief Pamela Smith. (National Park Service)

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