Sunday, June 23, 2024

Pamela Smith poised to be 1st Black female police chief in Washington, D.C.

Pamela Smith could soon reign as the first Black female chief to lead the police force in the nation’s capital.

On Monday, Washington Mayor Muriel E. Bowser named Smith the city’s next police chief, choosing a former U.S. Park Police chief who joined the D.C. department 14 months ago, The Washington Post reported.

Bowser said Smith’s experience with the two police agencies shows her familiarity with the city and the department she would lead. “She is resilient and ready for this role,” the mayor declared at a Monday news conference.

Pamela Smith police chief
Pamela A. Smith, former chief of the U.S. Park Police, was nominated by Mayor Muriel Bowser to lead the police department in Washington. The D.C. Council must confirm the choice. (Photo: Leigh Vogel/Getty Images for the Canadian American Business Council)

If confirmed by the D.C. Council, Smith would be the first Black woman to permanently run the agency since it was founded in 1861. Cathy L. Lanier, the only other female chief, oversaw the agency from January 2007 to September 2016.

Smith, who became acting chief with Bowser’s announcement, has held several posts throughout her brief tenure with the D.C. police, including chief equity officer, where she oversaw the department’s diversity and inclusion efforts, and assistant chief in charge of homeland security, a sensitive post in the capital city.

Robert J. Contee III announced his resignation in April to join the FBI, and Bowser said she began a nationwide search to fill his position.

City Council Chairman Phil Mendelson had asked Bowser to choose an internal candidate to maintain continuity. He stated on Monday that he is “optimistic” about the mayor’s choice but has concerns about Smith’s ability to oversee the agency. 

He said Smith’s management style, “her willingness and understanding of innovations and policing, as in trying new strategies” are crucial for the job, as are relationship skills.

“She clearly has some knowledge of the department since she’s been there at a high level for 14 months, and she has knowledge of the District since she’s been here with policing for a couple of decades,” Mendelson said, The Post reported. “She brings the experience of being a senior-level cop.”

Smith became the first Black woman to serve as chief of the 1791-founded Park Police in February 2021. The organization, a division of the National Park Service, is in charge of policing federal parks, including the Statue of Liberty in New York. In the nation’s capital, Park Police officers safeguard Washington’s National Mall and other national parks and monuments.

After 24 years of service, the final 14 months as chief, she left the Park Police in April 2022.

​​Smith noted that her work with the Park Police, although on a smaller scale than a big-city agency, required creating crime plans and responding to violence. She said she is up for the challenge in her new role and has a group of experts who regularly evaluate tactics. She also supports Bowser’s whole-government approach to combat crime

D.C. police union leader Greggory Pemberton said in a statement that Smith has a “resume that is worthy of this position” and that she “has the credentials and the experience to stand up to the detrimental policies that have been enacted by the City Council.”

The union claims city politicians have implemented policing policies that hinder law enforcement, such as banning officers from viewing body camera footage before writing reports.

In addition to managing a force with historically low staffing and navigating a mayor and council at odds over how to keep people safe, Smith must calm residents’ anxieties about gunshots, carjackings and homicides, including recent killings of victims of seemingly random robberies.

The number of homicides in the district is on pace to reach a two-decade high, as it could surpass 200 for the third year.

“One of my number-one priorities will be to be a very visible, public-facing chief of police,” Smith said in an interview with The Post on Sunday. “I want to hear from the people.”

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