Richard Smith is an expert firearms analyst for the Los Angeles Police Department's Scientific Investigation Division. Possessing an uncanny ability to remember microscopic detail, keen eyesight, patience, and tenacity, Smith helps the department crack difficult cases. Unassuming, thoughtful, and articulate, Smith once sought to dedicate his life to the ministry but his talents afforded him another means to help his community. He has earned the awe and respect of many experts in his field who consider Smith to be gifted, comparing his work to that of a master jeweler.
Smith was born in Salisbury, North Carolina, on June 21, 1957, to Percy Smith, Jr., a Methodist minister, and Lucy Gilliam Smith. Because of his father's work the family lived in several cities around the South. Despite the constant uprooting he has memories of a happy childhood. "Most of my memories are visual or artistic," Smith said in an interview with Contemporary Black Biography (CBB ). " But I'm terrible with names." This visual memory would later serve him well with his ballistics work for the Los Angeles Police Department.
Family Faced Racism and Death Threats
For a while Smith lived in Williamston, North Carolina, when his grandfather became ill with cancer. With the beginning of desegregation, Smith felt the sting of racism in the second grade when he began attending what had traditionally been an all-white school. "En route to school there was name calling and rock throwing by some older white kids," Smith said. "It lasted a few weeks and then settled down, except for one kid who attacked me during a dodge ball game. I knocked him down and then I cried because I thought I'd get in trouble for fighting. But I had a teacher who was a very nice Christian lady. She defended me and punished the other student. Things got better and that teacher made the difference."
Once civil rights marches began in the South, Smith's father wanted to get involved, seeking out a church in Montgomery, Alabama. In the summer of 1966 his father was assigned to the largest Methodist church in the city: Mount Zion. Percy Smith joined other blacks in forming a local chapter of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) and became a leading member of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), working closely with Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. "My father's church took on quite a reputation," Smith told CBB. "I remember 1966-67 when ministers met at our church. Dr. King came. As the ministers met we played with his kids in front of the church."
In 1969 Smith's father became the first African American to run for congress in Alabama. "Our family started to get threats from the Ku Klux Klan by phone and through the news media," Smith said. His father did not win the election but the loss did not deter him from running for mayor of Montgomery a few years later.
"Father had fought in World War II, so he knew how to use a firearm," Smith told CBB. "We are lucky that he did. During his campaign for mayor I remember people coming to our home and shaking my father's hand. One day a white guy came and as my father reached out to greet him the man tried to pull a gun from his pocket. As the man fumbled he dropped the gun and my father pulled a gun from his own pocket, chasing the man out of the house. He never caught him; the man jumped the fence and drove off. It was a traumatic incident for the family, but it affirmed our faith in my father. That may have been when I first considered police work, because of what my father had done to protect his family. I felt he was a strong person." Smith also felt that because of what the movement accomplished, things got better. The schools were integrated and race relations improved. His father had not won the mayoral race but his two opponents courted him for his support during the primary.
Pursued Police Work Instead of Ministry
Smith excelled in high school and earned many awards in sports and academics, receiving a scholarship to the College of Wooster in 1975. From the time he was 15 years old Smith thought he might follow his father into the ministry. "I prepared for it by going through the preliminary rituals," Smith said. "Once you decide, you can then become a youth leader and occasionally you are called upon to write a sermon. I loved speaking and the leadership aspect of it, being able to express myself about Jesus Christ and bringing my philosophy to the sermons I wrote and presented. The part I did not like was the politics you sometimes find in the church."
By 1980 Smith had moved to Los Angeles and received an ordination. "In LA I tried to establish a youth group and helped the church find a music director for the youth," he said. "I was also a youth minister. But several incidents caused me to decide against the ministry. I started looking for other ways that I might help the community. That's when I decided to become a police officer." Smith entered the Los Angeles Police Academy in 1981. In 1982-84 he began an assignment as a Narcotics Officer in Hollywood. From 1984-85 Smith worked as a training officer to new recruits. During the next two decades he worked undercover vice and narcotics details in South Central Los Angeles, did gang enforcement training, and began working for the Firearms Analysis Unit where he would distinguish himself as a ballistics expert with extraordinary skill.
Smith noticed some time before the ballistics assignment that he could see things in the distance a lot better than other officers. When he took a temporary assignment in ballistics to get off the street during a difficult time in his life, Smith found that his sharp eye was particularly suitable for that type of work. He was able to find matches between computer images, and shell casings culled from crime scenes much more often than other ballistics experts. Finding more matches allows police to back up witness testimony and get more convictions. One case in point that Smith helped crack was the murder of 12-year old Gregory Gabriel, a victim of a gang shooting, earning Smith a commendation from the LAPD Chief William Bratton.
Earned Accolades from His Peers
Every Wednesday detectives from around the city jump at the chance to bring their difficult cases to Smith. This has resulted in a 40 percent match rate for the department, a remarkable number. As a result the LAPD posts more hits than any police department in the country. Smith's work has earned him monikers like "Guru" and "a one-man weapon against crime." When asked about his eye for detail Smith says, "I think it has a lot to do with my memory as well." This combination of keen eyesight and almost photographic memory allows Smith to see minute similarities between guns, cartridge casings, and bullets in a database housing three-quarters of a million images. Although the computer is able to produce a slew of possible matches, the human eye is needed to make the final match.
At a Glance...
Born Richard Smith on June 21, 1957, in Salisbury, NC; married Karen Lyday, 1993; children: Cameryn, Taylor. Education: College of Wooster, psychology and religion, 1975-79; Pierce College, literature, 1998-2001. Religion: Christian.
Career: Los Angeles Police Department, Los Angeles, CA, patrol officer, narcotics officer, training officer, undercover vice and narcotics officer, gang enforcement training officer, firearms analyst, 1980–.
Awards: Los Angeles Police Department Chief's Commendation Award, 2004; Los Angeles Career Service Award, 2005.
Addresses: Office— LAPD, 3401 San Fernando Road, Los Angeles, CA, 90065.
Despite the inevitable monotony of such work, Smith says there are two reasons that he continues to find the work rewarding. He says, "It's satisfying to be able to do it well, and because I do it well my family, my friends, and the people I see every day on the street with their kids who are trying to make it and trying to enjoy a piece of this American way of life, it makes them safer to do that. In one respect it sounds corny but if I couldn't do that I would have left this job. What keeps me here is that. And if I ever feel like—at least here in LA—that if the rest of the people who I've trained are able to do it or do it as well as I can—and I'm sure they will one day—then I can leave it in their hands and go on and do other things. Right now I feel like if I do leave there is someone out there who is going to go unseen. But at least I feel like I'm doing my part to make it a little bit safer so that when my wife and kids go to visit there grandmother or when their grandmother goes out to work in her yard there is a less likely chance of her being hit by some stray bullet because of what I do. That is where I get satisfaction."
Los Angeles Times, May 5, 2004, p. 1.
People Magazine, October 11, 2004, p. 125.
Additional information for this profile was obtained through an interview with Richard Smith on February 21, 2005.
—Sharon Melson Fletcher
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