When Jeff Smythe left Show Low, Arizona in 2013 to become Burlington’s new chief of police, he didn’t initially imagine that he’d still be in the position when the calendar turned over to February of 2021.
“When [Burlington’s then-city manager] Harold Owen hired me,” Smythe recalled in an interview earlier this week, “he asked me, in the interview process what are my plans were, and I said I’d like to come to Burlington for three to five years.”
Those “three to five years” would ultimately balloon to something just shy of eight before Smythe announced his retirement from the city’s police department last Thursday. The police chief ultimately broke the news to Hardin Watkins, Owen’s successor as city manager, in a letter that left no shortage of unanswered questions about his intentions.
Aside from a vague admission that it was time for him “to pursue other professional interests,” Smythe’s missive revealed nothing about his post-retirement plans. Nor did it allude to health problems, job offers, a desire to spend more time with the family, or any of the other explanations that departing executives often give before they check out.
Smythe is emphatic, for his part, that there’s no great mystery to the timing of his forthcoming retirement. He recalls that the minimum timeline for his tenure was more or less set about four years ago when his youngest daughter, who at the time was about to start high school, asked him to remain in Burlington until she had graduated.
“She graduates high school in May, and I’ve timed my retirement for May,” the police chief went on to connect the dots. “I now feel that my responsibility to Burlington has been fulfilled, and my responsibility to my daughter has been fulfilled. I literally expect to spend June and July at the family beach house, laying low and reading books.”
As tempted as he may be to go to ground at his coastal hideaway, it doesn’t appear that the city’s departing police chief is being run out of Burlington because of his management of the city’s police force.
To hear it from the city’s top brass, Burlington’s police department is a smooth-running, high-caliber operation – one that is increasingly the envy of other municipal police departments in North Carolina. Although the department had already done much to improve training and professional standards before Smythe’s arrival, the outgoing chief believes he has taken these efforts to an even higher level. In recent years, the department has earned both state and national recognition in areas like de-escalation training and officer safety. A number of its officers have also been individually honored by organizations like the N.C. Police Executives Association and the Police Executive Research Forum – a law enforcement think tank in Washington, D.C.
Smythe said that one of the agency’s biggest achievements came four years ago, when it received a VALOR award for comprehensive safety from the Bureau of Justice Assistance, a division of the U.S. Department of Justice. A year earlier, the city’s police force had narrowly lost this prestigious honor to none other than the NYPD, so it was with enormous pride that Smythe accepted the star-topped glass trophy when Burlington received the award in 2017.
“The Department of Justice decided that the Burlington police department was the best police department in the United States out of 18,000 police departments that were eligible to enter,” the city’s police chief went on to recall. “When I saw that glass star, I knew I was going to take that with me when I leave. So, I had another one made, and I now have one trophy in my office and another one in the cabinet outside.”
In addition to its achievements in officer safety, Burlington’s police department has also implemented some innovative training and enforcement initiatives that have recently attracted attention outside the immediate area. These ventures include the department’s co-responder program, which assigns mental health workers to accompany officers on mental health calls, as well as the de-escalation classes that have taught officers how to diffuse dangerous situations since 2016.
Smythe said that these two programs have proven particularly prescient amid the push for police reform that has followed the death of George Floyd at the hands of Minneapolis police.
In the meantime, the circumstances around Floyd’s murder have inspired a new program called Active Bystandership in Law Enforcement. Smythe said that this training initiative encourages officers to intervene when they notice abuses out in the field so they avoid the disrepute of the cops in Minneapolis “who stood around and watched officer Chauvin with his knee on [Floyd’s] neck.”
Another outgrowth of Floyd’s murder has been the establishment of a new citizen advisory board for Burlington’s police department. This board, whose inaugural members were appointed by Burlington’s city council earlier this month, may go down as one of Smythe’s final contributions to the agency before his departure.
New job for police advisory team
According to Burlington’s city manager Hardin Watkins, one of the group’s first orders of business will, ironically, be to weigh in on the search for the city’s new police chief.
“This is one of the first subjects I’ll engage them on,” the city manager acknowledged when The Alamance News contacted him on Tuesday about the selection of a successor to Smythe.
Watkins added that he and other city officials will meet both individually and in open forums with a variety of local leaders and organizations in preparation for their search for the city’s next chief of police. He added, however, that the actual search process is currently very much in the air.
“I talked with [the city’s personnel director] Jaime [Joyner] today, and she’s putting together some options,” the city manager added. “We want a process that has community involvement and community engagement we want to hear from people about the skills and traits that they want in the new chief… We’re [also] trying to understand if there are some consulting firms than can help us with the search.”
Whatever the ultimate results of this search, Smythe insists that he’s confident the agency he’s leaving behind will have no trouble adapting to the priorities and leadership style of his anointed successor.
“The Burlington police department is what I would call a learning organization,” he explained. “We have embraced change growth and flexibility at a pretty high level, and whoever comes in is going to find an organization that’s willing to learn.”
As for his own future plans, Smythe insists that he isn’t quite sure what he’ll do when he emerges from his self-imposed seclusion at the family beach house.
The outgoing police chief said that he’s willing to remain on the various state and national committees to which he’s been appointed – including the North Carolina Task Force on Racial Equity in Criminal Justice, which he joined by dint of a gubernatorial appointment shortly before he announced his retirement. Meanwhile, Smythe concedes that he hopes to continue with his career in law enforcement – even if it’s unclear just where and in what capacity that will ultimately be.
”I have three to four years of viable professional life left in me,” he said, “and I certainly see myself back in a police chief role or a policing role.”