by Marco Colantonio
WEHO TIMES HEROES is the first of a series of ongoing features profiling West Hollywood’s local heroes – to honor individuals who make extraordinary contributions that make a difference in our community. We are proud to honor Lt. Dave Smith of the West Hollywood Sheriff’s Station.
Most deputies in Los Angeles County spend 2 to 5 years at a particular Sheriff’s station before requesting a transfer or receiving a promotion that reassigns them. But Lt. Dave Smith has been assigned to the West Hollywood Sheriff’s Station for 30 of the past 31 years. And that’s exactly how he likes it. With a lifetime of service, passionate commitment and love for West Hollywood, Lt. Smith has protected our citizens and served as a role model for other deputies.
“I love the community,” reports the 58-year-old Smith, the father of 5 children, ages 18 to 35. “It’s something new every day. It’s not stagnant. This is a fun place to work. There’s always something new to discover and challenges that we have to work on to make it the safest city possible.”
Affectionately known about town as “Smitty,” he is beloved by the residents and considered a vital part of the West Hollywood family.
“Fortunately, for us, our Sheriffs Dept. in WeHo has officers such as “Smitty” that bridge that gap and establish relationships with the community. Smitty knows, respects and understands WeHo. He’s accessible, caring and 100% committed to us, setting the example for his deputies to follow. He follows thru on issues, listens to and treats us as if we are his family, not just “residents. – Ruth Williams, (long-time resident, one of the city founders & Vice-Chair of the West Hollywood Public Safety Commission.)
“Lt. Dave Smith is an amazing community advocate. He, along with his team, are proactive in addressing public safety concerns and takes special care to immediately assist the businesses impacted by crime and other unfortunate incidents. Lt. Smith is someone you want around!” – Genevieve Morrill, (President/CEO West Hollywood Chamber of Commerce.)
Ironically, Dave Smith didn’t originally intend to be a Sheriff’s deputy. As a teenager, he dreamed of being a sports announcer.
“I love sports. I used to practice in my room, talking, going through the games,” says Smith who was born in Glendale and raised in Atwater Village, the youngest of 3 siblings. “I was shy, an introvert, afraid of speaking in public, so that kind of put a damper on that.”
He joined the LA County Sheriff Department in 1982 following the birth of his oldest son, David, Jr. At the time, he was working as a pharmaceutical representative but needed more money to support his new family. His older sister, who was a sheriff’s deputy (and ultimately retired as a captain), suggested he join the department.
In another twist of irony, West Hollywood was not Smith’s first choice of assignments. After training at the Sheriff’s Academy and the mandatory two years working in the county jails which all new recruits must do, Smith signed up for a transfer, listing the East LA and Temple City sheriff’s stations as his top choices. West Hollywood was the third choice, but the first of the 3 to have an opening. He started here on October 14, 1985, and the rest, as they say, is history.
Over the years, he’s worked a number of assignments in the Creative City. A few years into his tenure, he became a training officer for deputies newly assigned to the city. Later, he was the watch deputy. In 1996, he left West Hollywood for the Lynnwood jail when he was promoted to Sergeant, only to come back a year later when the West Hollywood Station captain needed a trained sergeant.
Upon his return, he worked as a sergeant on the COPS team, which is tasked with addressing crime and quality-of-life issues in specific areas. They provide services from a community oriented policing approach; working and partnering with residents to identify problems and formulate solutions.
In 2000, he became the Sunset Policing Team Sergeant, charged with cleaning up the Sunset Strip, getting rid of a criminal element and solving other issues there. He had 5 motorcycle deputies under him and worked Wednesday-Saturday, 6 p.m. to 4 a.m.
“We had a zero tolerance policy up there,” says Smith, who has worked under 12 captains in his time at the West Hollywood station. “We got rid of the problems, cleaned up Sunset, and created a safer feeling in and around the Strip. It was a lot of work – a lot of stress at times to make it happen with the crowd we were dealing with, a lot of alcohol-related issues, a lot of gangsters that would come into our city. They never staked this as their town; it was a place for them to come and meet girls and just try to cause some problems. We got rid of that, and I think the Strip is still a vibrant place to come.”
By 2004, it was time for Smith to promote to Lieutenant, which would have meant his transferring to another station. Not wanting to lose him, the captain at the time (Lynda Castro), the City Manager (Paul Arevalo), and Public Safety Director (Kristin Cook) created the position of Service Area Lieutenant specifically for Smith, thus allowing him to be promoted and also stay in the city. That job, which he still holds, requires him to oversee the COPS team and the Entertainment Policing team (covering the Boystown and Sunset Strip entertainment districts). He also oversees special events in the city including the gay pride festival and parade, Halloween, Grammy parties, Emmy parties, Oscar parties, etc. He attends all the planning meetings for these events as well as related Commission and Board meetings.
“Service Area Lieutenant is a liaison between the city and the station,” explains Smith. “I work really close with Kristin Cook, the City Council and the City Manager. I’m the go-between for the city and our captain. I make sure my captain looks good.”
“It’s great to have a working relationship with local law enforcement, especially when dealing with petty theft, drugs and meth users, and homelessness. I’m very thankful to be on a text message basis with Smitty. He’s available day or night, even if needed even on his days off or at his kid’s ballgame, Dave protects and serves with a strong, gentle touch. He’s a good man.” – Larry Block, (Owner of Block Party & Former Chair of the West Hollywood Disabilities Advisor Board.)
With a 22-mile commute from Pasadena where he and his wife, Yvette, live, Dave Smith typically leaves for work at 5 a.m. and does a 3 to 4 mile run around West Hollywood before starting his shift. He runs a different route every day so he can say hello to different residents who are early risers, and also keep an eye on what’s going on in the neighborhoods. When he officially starts his work day, he routinely puts on a 15-pound bulletproof vest.
“If I sit behind my desk and do paperwork, I’m still wearing my vest and gun belt,” Smith reports. “I’ve been shot at, so I know that feeling of what could happen. We’re just very fortunate that our shooting rates are very low and I think that’s because our deputy personnel are always out and about. We have a visibility factor.”
The low crime rate is one of the reasons the West Hollywood station has become a top choice for assignment after new recruits finish their mandatory stint in the jails. The waiting list for West Hollywood assignments is typically 3 to 4 years long, but sometimes can be as long as 6 years, depending on the needs of the community and the retirements from the station. There are currently about 175 people assigned to the WeHo station.
“West Hollywood is fast enough that you learn how to be a good cop,” Smith says, explaining the station’s popularity. “It’s a vibrant place. I think the word is being spread to the people [working in the jails] that there’s so much to do out here, opportunities to be on specialized teams, to meet some good people who live out here, the people who support us.”
Upon arrival here, new deputies go through patrol school where they are taught patrol tactics. They also get a refresher course in diversity training, something that is taught as part of training at the Sheriff’s Academy.
“Within the first two weeks here, we take them to city hall, and they meet all the people and talk about diversity, what the city is made of,” Smith reports. “A patrol officer should be prepared every day, not only mentally and physically for a bad guy shoot out, but also what type of folks they should be dealing with on a daily basis. I tell them, ‘Be open minded. People really like you here. Don’t be afraid to smile, to say hello. Just know your community. Just listen to them. Be empathetic; you have to show compassion to them no matter what the situation is.’”
The West Hollywood station has its share of gay and lesbian deputies, Smith says. Of the straight deputies assigned here, he has never encountered any who had to be transferred out for homophobia.
Smith is also father to a gay son, 35-year-old, David Jr., who worked for several years with the WeHo Chamber of Commerce. David, Jr., who calls his father his “best friend,” came out to the family 6 years ago, and now lives in Silverlake with his partner.
Smith, Sr., was not the least bit phased by his son’s coming out.
“He was my son, and I loved him no matter what,” Smith says. “It didn’t matter where I worked, but it did help a little because I was more used to the community. Gay people are great people. I have so many great friends that I’ve met in the community. I consider them friends, not just working relationships.”
“I have known “Smitty” for a long time. When I had concerns about the treatment of minority trans folks when taken to the WeHo jail, Dave sat with me and the captain and went over each one, case by case. He promised to protect the privacy of all involved, assuring me that no harm had would come to anyone. I will never forget that kindness, as he is the one who reached out and initiated the meeting. We all have a friend in Smitty. He is what WeHo stands for, compassion and tolerance.” – Jimmy Palmieri, (Founder of the Tweakers Project & West Hollywood Human Services Commissioner.)
When Captain Gary Honings retired in 2015, many community members were calling for Dave Smith to be named the West Hollywood Station’s new captain. However, that assignment ultimately went to Holly Perez, someone Smith admires and adores. “She’s great. I love working with her,” he says.
Smith has long dreamed of being named captain of the West Hollywood Station. However, at age 58 with 35 years with the LA County Sheriff under his gun holster, he’s also contemplating retirement, possibly as early as 2018.
“My goal was to be a captain,” he says. “There were times I would have to leave to go work downtown without a guarantee of becoming a captain. I want to be the captain here. I chose to stay here. Nobody said I had to stay here. I chose to stay here. I felt comfortable here. I loved the flexibility, but also the community. I love the diversity, just the community in general because they’re so well rounded. It’s a diverse, educated community that respects and wants their city to become better.”
“Smitty knows this city like the back of his hand and is more than just a cop, he’s a part of WeHo, and he instills this kind of commitment in his fellow officers. I admire him, what he does, and support him. He never knows when he walks out that door if he’s risking his personal safety for us, but yet he’s there for us, and we’re damn lucky to have him! He’s a hero in my eyes, and I’m proud to call him a friend!” – Ruth Williams, (long-time resident, one of the city founders & Vice-Chair of the West Hollywood Public Safety Commission.)
STAY SAFE – Lt. DAVE SMITH’S TOP SAFETY TIPS:
- Be observant; 2. Be good witnesses for each other. 3. Don’t be afraid to call us.
“Obviously, you want to know your surroundings. Get your head out of your phone. Look before you come into your sub garage. Keep your lights on as long as you can. Have your keys and your remote so you can hit that alarm. Just be observant driving down the street. We have a lot of pedestrians in this city, so be observant of them.”
“You may want to have a good witness for you if you were a victim of a crime. So, don’t hide your head in the sand and say I don’t want to get involved. We need people to be involved. You are our eyes and our ears. Call us if you see something unusual.”