CHARLESTON, W.Va. (AP) — Col. Jay Smithers, newly appointed superintendent of the West Virginia State Police, stood in his office with a newspaper in hand and a giant State Police shield behind him as he talked to a reporter.
“We can’t have things like this,” he said, waving a newspaper in the direction of two of his subordinates, Sgt. Michael Baylous and Capt. Dave Lemmon, as he talked to the reporter. “It reflects poorly on me, it reflects poorly on Mike, on (Lemmon). . . . It kills me. We need to do everything we can to acknowledge and address these incidents, and then we need to move forward.”
The newspaper in his hand showed a headline from March 4: “Trooper wins in sex suit.”
It was a story about former trooper Derek Snavely, and how a jury in Julie Fato’s civil trial ruled that she was a willing participant in their sexual encounter.
Smithers had just gotten back to the office after speaking at in-service training, where he held up the same newspaper and told the troopers that such incidents reflect poorly on the whole organization.
Smithers, a former trooper now back to lead the agency, has been in the office for less than a month. He talked about how he wants to run the department moving forward.
“We realize the public holds us to a higher standard, like it or not,” he said. “It’s not easy to walk the walk, but walk it we must.”
Smithers said he has started to address some problems he sees within the department. He’s asked the Legislature to look at pay and benefits for civilian employees. The department is having a hard time keeping current employees, and many of the agency’s long-time civilian employees are nearing retirement.
He also wants to put more emphasis on recruiting. He said that, so far, he’s contacted legislators and others about who might be good troopers. He said he knows there are men and women out there who haven’t considered a career in the State Police who would make excellent troopers.
“We need to find folks. As we speak, we don’t have troopers that live in three counties: Wyoming, McDowell and Pleasants,” he said. “That’s horrible. We have folks assigned there, but we need folks who are stakeholders in the communities.”
Smithers enlisted in the State Police in 1973 at 19. He turned 20 as a cadet. He was stationed in Raleigh County, where he learned the ropes of being a trooper.
The sheriff’s departments weren’t as active in those days, and troopers often had little backup outside of city police departments, he said. His detachment commander had troopers go out to the beer gardens around the county every day, just to take stock of what was going on and to make sure things didn’t get out of hand.
“We could do that back then,” he said.
Troopers are most often alone in their duties. They don’t have partners, and when they come upon a difficult situation, backup can be miles, and perhaps hours, away.
Smithers recalled the first time he realized this.
“It was a beer garden called the Rendezvous,” he said. “There was a fist-fight in the bar.”
Smithers said he walked in, and two guys were beating up on another guy. He wasn’t sure what was going to happen. The guys who started the fight “spent a lot of weekends in jail” Smithers said.
They saw the trooper standing there, and the fighting stopped. They walked outside, allowed themselves to be handcuffed and went to jail.
Smithers said he stepped into the bar thinking things wouldn’t go well for him, that he might get beaten.
“The only reason I didn’t is because of the troopers and the image and reputation they enjoy -- they still enjoy,” he said. “If there is an agency that has more tradition, I don’t know who.”
There are things that happen that don’t shine a favorable light on the agency, Smithers said. When those things happen, it’s important for the agency to address them as openly as it can, given the confines of the law, he said.
“Everyone wants to be part of a successful police agency, and we need to sell that,” Smithers said. “We need to do all we can to minimize these incidents.”
Smithers retired from the State Police in 1998, after 25 years. When he left, he was captain of the State Police’s Turnpike Division. He went to the Capitol and became a part of the new Division of Protective Services -- the Capitol Police. He was director of the agency from 2005 until last month, when he was appointed superintendent by Senate President Earl Ray Tomblin, in his role as acting governor.
Smithers, who is from the Sissonville area, remembers staying after school for football practice and then having to hitchhike home. He said that, often, a trooper would happen by and pick him and his friends up and drive them home. Now he thinks the trooper just wanted to make sure they got home safe.
“I didn’t realize it at the time, but he did it on purpose,” he said. “When I started (as a trooper), I did the same thing.
“I truly love what I’m doing,” he said. “It’s a rare occasion where an individual gets to come back from retirement to lead an organization.”