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'Smitty' signs off: Cottage Grove police sergeant retires after 31 years

Cottage Grove police Sgt. Jim ‘Smitty’ Smith retired after 31 years in law enforcement, a career he said he wanted since childhood. (Submitted photo)1 / 3
Starting out at age 20, Cottage Grove police Sgt. Jim ‘Smitty’ Smith first got a taste of law enforcement working for the Kenyon and Cannon Falls police departments. (Submitted photo)2 / 3
An avid gun collector and enthusiast, retired Cottage Grove police Sgt. Jim 'Smitty' Smith took up a job at the new Cabela's in Woodbury working in the gun department. (Bulletin photo by Riham Feshir)3 / 3

It was always a lifelong goal of Jim ‘Smitty’ Smith to wear a police uniform.

An encounter with law enforcement as a young child ignited a passion for community service within the longtime Cottage Grove police sergeant that transcended into a career spanning three decades.

With many experiences secured in his police belt, Smith’s final sign-off, or 10-7, was broadcast across the local scanners last month following his last day of patrol.

“It’s been good to me,” Smith said of his law enforcement career. “It’s something I always knew I’d be doing.”

He started out as a 20-year-old police officer in 1983 in Kenyon, Minn., a small town in Goodhue County, before he landed a job with the Cannon Falls Police Department, where he was living. Both were smaller departments, he said, but it was the small-town lifestyle that taught him how to effectively communicate with those he served.

“Starting out policing in the smaller towns taught me people skills,” he said. “We learned how to talk to people and meet people’s needs in a creative way. And it was a good opportunity to meet the residents in the community.”

While life in Cannon Falls was settled, Smith said he was looking for an opportunity to work closer to the metro. He said he enjoyed his “little slice of small town living” but sought a larger jurisdiction to serve.

He saw an opening with the Cottage Grove Police Department, and in January 1989 was hired as a full-time police officer.

In 1998, Smith was promoted to patrol sergeant, which was a job, he said, that gave him a chance to use his leadership skills.

Close calls and kinkajous

Like many officers with long careers, Smith said he has many on-the-job stories ingrained in his memory.

“There was never a dull day (as a police officer),” he said. “There was always something going on.”

During his tenure he said he spent a lot of time patrolling the streets and responding to accidents, particularly on Highway 61. Before cable barriers and medians separated the north and southbound lanes, vehicles would pass within mere feet of one another at high speeds.

On May 3, 2003, shortly after 6:45 p.m., three vehicles collided, killing six of the seven people involved. Smith was the second patrol unit on the scene.

“There were no cable barriers on the highway at the time,” he said. “So when cars would lose control they would go through the median and into the opposite lane. But since then those barriers were put in and they have helped a lot.”

Smith was also one of many authorities assisting at the scene of a murder-suicide at the Jimmy John’s in Cottage Grove in 2012.

“I’ve dealt with my fair share of tragedies,” he said. “And it’s something you have to learn to deal with.”

Two close calls during his time with the Cottage Grove Police Department came when two fellow officers, Mary McGuire and current police Capt. Greg Rinzel were hit by vehicles.

“It’s the worst feeling watching one of your own get sent to the hospital in an ambulance,” he said.

Both officers made full recoveries.

Despite the hard days at the office, Smith said there were entertaining moments, including several animal calls.

In August 2011, police were called to the Cottage Grove Ravine Regional Park on a report of a large reptile sighting. Smith and others found a 5-foot iguana sunbathing on the shore. Smith said he suspected the iguana was a household pet at one point but guessed it outgrew its home and was set loose.

Smith also responded to a call of a kinkajou, a small, raccoon-like rainforest animal, hiding in a homeowner’s garage.

“It obviously scared them to death,” he laughed.

He oversaw the community service officer program at the time and one of the main jobs assigned to those officers was responding to animal calls.

“Just catching these weird animals was fun,” Smith said. “The CSOs did a lot of animals calls and they would always call me on the weird ones. Plus, you just have to go see what they find.”

‘Jack of all trades’

Following his pinning in 1989, it didn’t take Smith long to acclimate to his new surroundings. He quickly became a field training officer, a position he held for eight years until 1998. The following year he became a supervisor.

One accomplishment he is especially proud of is his involvement with the Park High School’s school resource officer program, which he and officer McGuire started.

“This put the officers in the schools and gave the kids positive exposure to law enforcement,” Smith said. “It’s a valuable tool.”

Smith was also involved in DARE and GREAT, which taught drug and gang resistance at local schools.

From 1995 to 2002, he was a firearms instructor.

Smith spent 11 years as a member of the Washington County SWAT team as well.

“I was a tactical operator and the submachine gun guy,” he said. “I ran the entry team.”

He assisted other SWAT members during many missions, most of which were drug-related, he said. Planning for high-risk missions was mapped out to include the smallest detail, he said, and often involved narcotics experts.

“For example, we’d be planning a mission to retrieve a guy who has guns, is a known violent felon and hasn’t slept for five days because he’s been high on meth,” he explained. “That’s what we dealt with a lot. It was a huge rush of adrenaline.”

His nightly drive home to Cannon Falls, he said, served as much-needed time to decompress.

Police Chief Craig Woolery, a longtime friend of Smith, said his involvement with many different capacities of the Cottage Grove Police Department made Smith a valuable asset to the community.

“He’s a Mr. Fix-It,” Woolery said. “Whether it be mechanical issues, people issues, or anything he’s assigned, he can do it. He’s a jack of all trades. All his assignments on the SWAT team, squad, school resource officer, field training officer — he was just really a good, down-to-earth, plain- speak kind of guy that people could relate to.”

That “plain-speak” style also made him a pointman in the development of the recently completed City Hall and Public Safety building. Woolery appointed Smith as the police liaison to the construction firm.

“He was instrumental in helping make the building what it is,” Woolery said.

Retirement plan

While many new retirees vow to ditch the alarm clock, Smith will continue working.

However, his new office is in the back of the new Cabela’s in Woodbury as a firearms expert. His eye for classic weapons, Woolery said, will help gun enthusiasts sell and buy vintage and new firearms.

“He’s all into that whole ‘American Picker’ thing and loves old guns,” he added. “He really knows his weapons.”

For the last 25 years, Smith said he and his wife, Staci, have attended hundreds of antique shows in search of guns, old Coleman lanterns and other antiques.

“Every day is a history lesson,” Smith said of his new job at Cabela’s.

This new gig, he said, lets him explore his hobby full-time. He also intends to spend time with his family and outdoors.

“He’s a good friend of mine for many years and working with him was always a treat,” Woolery said. “He is a respectable, hard-working, honest guy and he will be missed.”