To his former police chief, James Smith was “the Jackie Robinson” of the Miami Beach Police Department, a God-fearing man, father and husband who played a little baseball in his younger years.
To the black officers currently on the force, he was a pioneer, the first black officer to join the force.
And as of Wednesday morning, Smith’s name and legacy — inscribed onto a plaque — will live on inside the department’s community room, a place for youth outreach and citizen meetings where officers hope his nearly three-decade legacy of integrity and kindness will spread to others. Smith died in January.
“Because of him, I’m where I am today,” said Major Wayne Jones during a ceremony dedicating the department’s community room to Smith. He addressed a crowd of dozens of officers, former colleagues of Smith, friends and family members.
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Ken Glassman, who was the department’s police chief when Smith retired as a patrol major in 1990, brought up the famed Brooklyn Dodgers baseball player Jackie Robinson when discussing Smith’s career. Both broke color barriers, one in professional baseball, the other in law enforcement. And both could play ball — Smith played with a Dodgers semi-pro affiliate.
“Our Smitty broke the color line in the Miami Beach Police Department, and it wasn’t easy,” Glassman said.
When Smith joined the force in 1964, he was greeted by segregated water fountains and an air of racism inside the department and on the streets he patrolled.
Every night after work during the early parts of his career, Smith would leave his patrol and head to his Liberty City home, overcome by the racial tension he felt inside the force and throughout the city.
“Not everyone was happy,” Glassman said, referring to both officers and those in the city. “He had a tough road. He earned your respect every day.”
But he didn’t let it affect his time at home. He taught his sons that there was good and bad in every race, and that they needed to treat everyone the way they wished to be treated. Every day was a lesson and a blessing, he would say.
“He never complained,” said son Rodney Smith, 55, a motivational speaker. “He never let it make him bitter.”
Once he graduated from the police academy, he saw the sign for the “colored” fountain removed, a sign of things to come during Smith’s groundbreaking tenure with the force.
The Rev. Clayton Harrell, who attended the same church as Smith, said he would always stop by his house when he was driving through Liberty City. In a neighborhood that didn’t like police, he said Smith was a “real police officer — he loved the people he served and he served the people because he loved them.”
“If the officers could be like Officer Smith, they would all be great officers,” he said.
Rocco Delo, who served on the force from 1970-94, eventually becoming an assistant chief, said he was honored to have served with Smith.
“He was an exceptional man at a very, very hard time,” he said. “It may not have always been easy, but he did it.”