Alumni Spotlight: Sgt. Angela Smith

Fricke Cooper Achievement Award & SPSCO Class #531

 d5x_1212-1.jpgApril 2, 2024 – Celebrating 25 years in law enforcement, Sgt. Angela Smith is a graduate of SPSC Class #531 and a January 2024 recipient of NUCPS Traffic Crash Investigation & Reconstruction's Fricke Cooper Achievement Award. She is one of three women to have received this award to date, and one of two NUCPS students to have both attended SPSC and earned the FCA. 

As a long-time veteran of the crash investigation and reconstruction field, Smith has found it a specialty that fits well with her academic strengths and desires for challenge and growth. With a strong background in math, she initially believed she would never have the opportunity to use her skills in the work world. She was not interested in following her father into the actuarial sciences nor her mother into teaching high school math. Instead, Smith earned her B.S. and M.S. in Criminal Justice from Loyola University Chicago. Drawn to law enforcement for its daily challenges, camaraderie, and sense of purpose, she quickly discovered that Crash Investigation & Reconstruction allowed her to utilize her math skills and offered opportunities for professional growth and further education. “I enjoy being challenged,” says Smith. “When we go outside our comfort zones is when we learn the most about ourselves and the world around us.”

Smith first enrolled in a NUCPS crash course in 2002. She considers the skills and techniques she later learned in Crash Data Retrieval Analysis & Applications and Pedestrian & Bicycle Crash Reconstruction as having significant impacts on both her duties in Wheaton and her field work as a member of the Major Crash Reconstruction Team for the Metropolitan Emergency Response and Investigations Team (MERIT), which serves DuPage County, Illinois. “I use the information learned during both of these courses on a regular basis,” states Smith. “The Crash Data Retrieval course discusses how to take the data imaged from a vehicle’s event data recorder and apply it to the crash at hand. Imaging event data recorders has become routine in the majority of fatal crashes. Being able to analyze and apply the data from these modules is helpful in reconstructing a crash.” Pedestrian & Bicycle Crash Reconstruction has proven valuable “due to the large number of fatal crashes in DuPage County involving a pedestrian or bicyclist”, says Smith. She notes that “to reconstruct these crashes, an officer needs to attend more advanced and specialized training beyond the core reconstruction classes.  The Pedestrian & Bicycle reconstruction class teaches you what information you need from the . . . crash scene and how to apply it in your reconstruction. The information learned in this course has assisted me with numerous crashes over the years.”

 In 2017, Smith served as the class supervisor at the Suburban Law Enforcement Academy (SELA). She regards the assignment as one of the highlights of her career. “Watching the recruits learn and prepare themselves to return to their respective police departments was extremely fulfilling,” she recalls. “I knew I wanted to have more of an impact on young and developing officers.” Her plan for this career step included attending SPSC. “I saw SPSC as a steppingstone towards promotion in order to make more positive changes and influence our officers and our department.” The SPSC Leadership unit — taught in SPSC #531 by Evanston (IL) Police Department Deputy Chief Melissa Sacluti — had the biggest effect on Smith’s work. “Sacluti discussed the need to show vulnerability and lead from the heart," recounts Smith. “If you demonstrate courage to your officers, they will follow you wherever you go. Sacluti reminded me what is important in a leader, how there is not one best way to supervise, and as a leader we must adapt our style to each officer and situation. . . . Being a female in a high-ranking command position, Deputy Chief Sacluti was an inspiration to me.

Smith also recalls, "The ability to network and create partnerships with other law enforcement agencies was the greatest benefit of attending SPSC . . .. My class was comprised of command staff members from 33 different jurisdictions across Illinois. The ability to converse with command staff members of other departments and learn about their agencies, the programs they offer, and how they handle certain issues was a tremendous opportunity for all of us.”

Smith served as president of Class #531, a role that she credits as helping her sharpen her leadership skills. “Not only was I a leader within my department, but I was a leader among my peers. This was a tremendous honor and experience.” She returned to her duties in Wheaton — and to her role as the Component Commander at MERIT — with “more experience and knowledge to help mentor others.”  

Mentoring younger officers is important to Smith. After her initial assignment at SLEA, she found she enjoyed the experience so much that she returned to the academy as an instructor. “Policing is a noble profession, and at the conclusion of each course, I remind the new recruits to take pride in their chosen career,” says Smith. “I discuss the importance of maintaining a good work ethic and a moral compass, and I end with the need to realize that while your profession is important, it is imperative that one does not forget about their family, friends, and hobbies along the way. I’m coming to the end of my career, and I’ve realized how important this advice is to all officers no matter how long they have been on the job.”

Of course, in order to mentor young officers, agencies need new recruits. Smith views the low recruitment rates in law enforcement as the biggest issue impacting her agency and the profession as a whole. “Recruitment has been very difficult the past couple of years. When I started in law enforcement, you would see a couple of hundred applicants applying for one or two positions at a police department.  Recently, we’ve been seeing less than 50 applicants show up for a testing process. Wheaton Police Department has taken a more aggressive approach to recruitment by going out and locating good candidates,” says Smith. She reports that some of her department’s recruitment efforts include “attending job fairs throughout Illinois, sharing what the [department] has to offer, and soliciting interest. In the last three years, our community engagements have increased through events such as Neighborhood Roll Calls, National Night Out, Citizens Police Academy, and Movies in the Park.  We have also developed programs that focus on our younger generations, which include our Junior Police Academy Camp and Law Enforcement Explorers Program.”

Despite the challenges involved in policing today, Smith remains optimistic about cultural changes to the profession, especially the increase in the number and quality of officer wellness programs offered throughout the country. “I’m a huge proponent of mental health support for officers.  When I started 25 years ago, you would never hear of an officer discussing mental health issues. The nature of our jobs exposes us to regular stress and often trauma. . . . Agencies are recognizing the amount of stress law enforcement puts on an individual. In response, many agencies are implementing new and innovative wellness programs.” She devoted her SPSC staff study to officer wellness, researching the implementation of a comfort dog program for officers.

Despite depressed recruiting numbers, Smith has seen an uptick in the number of female officers who are entering crash investigation and reconstruction work. “I believe seeing other women in this position — and the success we have had — pave the way for future female involvement,” she says.While the number of women in law enforcement continues to increase, we are still the minority. I think women often find encouragement by observing other females in these roles who are successful with families at home.  While it is difficult to maintain a successful career and a happy family, it is possible.” And Smith should know. She considers her son her “greatest achievement in life. When I look at him, I’m reminded of what’s important.”

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