At a young age, Opie Smith III knew he wanted to be a police officer. As young as 7, he could be seen riding his bike around town — with a red and blue light bar attached — pretending to write tickets.
Now policing is more than a childhood dream, it’s a career. Smith’s law enforcement journey has included stints as an officer with departments in Chesapeake, Marmet and Belle.
Since May, he has been working alongside the person who inspired him to become an officer in the first place, his father, as a member of the Charleston Police Department. Smith’s father is Opie Smith Jr., the Charleston police chief.
Opie Smith III is still in field training, which all new officers go through, and the two haven’t crossed paths often, they said. But when they do, it’s professional, the chief said.
“When I see him, it will be Patrolman Smith,” Chief Smith said. “It’s not going to be, ‘Hey, son.’”
That isn’t an unfamiliar practice for Opie Smith III. He said it’s customary for him after his years in the military; he served in the Army National Guard for six years, from 2010 to 2016.
“It was a day-one mindset coming into orientation as well, to show respect to the chain of command,” Opie Smith III said. “I always wanted to do some kind of service.”
“And dad might have pushed him toward it,” Opie Smith Jr. added.
However, his father didn’t hire him. Opie Smith III went through the same hiring process as every other officer, which requires passing written and physical tests and approval from the Civil Service Board, followed by a conditional appointment from Charleston Mayor Amy Shuler Goodwin.
Opie Smith III said being a police officer was always something he considered as a career.
“I thought about it when I was younger. I thought about it more as I went on ride-alongs with the Chief,” Opie Smith III said of his father. “I think it started with us watching ‘Cops.’”
For Opie Smith Jr., he didn’t find his calling until later in life. During the 1980s, he worked as a mechanic for the city. While working on the night shift, he would work on squad cars and befriended many of the officers. One in particular was John Shannon, who currently works in the city’s public works department.
He did some ride-alongs with Shannon, and then the two men started to train together.
“That guy ran me into the ground,” Opie Smith Jr. said. “But when I went to the [West Virginia State Police Academy], I did fine after working with him.”
Opie Smith Jr. went on to enjoy a long career as an officer, and said there was an adjustment period when he was named chief earlier this year.
“Just imagine, the first 20 years I’ve been doing this job, I’ve been on the streets. It’s been a culture shock,” he said. “There are just things you just don’t know the Chief does.”
Opie Smith Jr. said that although he encouraged his son to join the police force, the decision was ultimately Opie Smith III’s.
“I’ve never forced my kids into anything, it was always just suggestions,” Opie Smith Jr. said.
Opie Smith III said he wanted to serve because he wanted to help people, which is also what attracted his father to the force.
“It’s cliche, but I’ve always enjoyed that aspect of it,” Opie Smith III said.
“For most of the guys on this job, it’s not who I can arrest, but who I can help,” his father echoed.
Opie Smith III recalls when officers helped him in a time of need.
“I actually got hit by a drunk driver when I was on state active duty through the military, right here in town on Randolph Street,” Opie Smith III said. “Luckily, my daughter wasn’t with me.”
The driver was arrested at the scene and the incident sparked his interest in DUI work, which he has done a lot of throughout his career. He also is certified as a Drug Response Expert.
He also recently learned his fiance was hit by a drunk driver when she was younger.
“Getting people like that off the road and keeping innocent people safe is a big thing for me,” Opie Smith Jr. said.
One thing that has changed about the police force over the years, Opie Smith Jr. said, is the number of people applying. When he applied, he said there were 500 people who took the test and 300 on the final list. When his son applied, 37 took the test and 21 passed, but only seven made it through the selection process onto the final list.
The Smiths said the decline could be because of the stress of the job or unfavorable reports of officer conduct in the media. But the chief’s advice to his son and any other officers in the field is simple: Just talk to people.
“You can get so much accomplished with just talking to people,” Opie Smith Jr. said. “You don’t know what that person has been through. You show them that even though you’re wearing that uniform, you’re a person, too.”