Wayne County sergeant was 'the ultimate trainer'

George Hunter
The Detroit News
Swanson Funeral Home Executive Vice President Linda Swanson, left, assists family member pallbearers as they place the casket of Wayne County Sheriff's Sgt. Lee Smith in the back of this hearse.

Detroit — Whether he was riding a motorcycle or a horse, Lee Smith spent 26 years patrolling Wayne County's thoroughfares and parks, and teaching other cops how to ride, shoot — and take pride in the badge.

The longtime Wayne County sheriff's sergeant was killed by a hit-and-run driver Aug. 14 while he was off duty, jogging on Hines Drive in Westland. He was 55 and planned to retire Oct. 1.

During Smith's funeral Thursday at Greater Grace Temple on Detroit's west side, he was described as a cop who took his duties seriously — particularly when he was training other officers.

"Lee has probably trained 98 percent, indirectly or directly … of our entire agency," Wayne County Sheriff’s Lt. Theodis Sims said during the service. "He was a great man, a great friend, a great brother and a great co-worker.

"Lee put a stamp on this department," Sims said. "He was the ultimate trainer. A lot of people couldn't understand why he was so hard, but … he was a perfectionist, and he only wanted everything to be done right.

"The guy had a heart that probably couldn't fit in his chest," Sims said. "He loved his work. That was our guy. As we try to wrap our minds around this, understand God doesn't make mistakes. He obviously needed a trainer up there. He needed the best." 

John Smith said his little brother displayed a quest for justice early in life.

“Lee was 7 years old … the first time he apprehended an abuser," he said. "That abuser was my father; he abused my mother. She came out of the basement covered with blood. Lee grabbed his (father’s) leg, I helped him, we got him down and the rest of my siblings tied him up.

The motorcycle of Wayne County Sheriff’s deputy Lee Smith, who was killed by a hit-and-run driver, on display outside Greater Grace Temple, where Smith’s funeral was held Aug. 23, 2018

"Lee was angry because of my father. He was angry about how we lived," he said. "This guy could've gone down the wrong road, but he turned his anger into success." 

Wayne County sheriff's Sgt. Rachel Davis, who was trained by Mr. Smith in the police academy and later served with him on the Mounted Unit, said he "taught me how to fall."

"He taught me how to get back up and not let the fall deter me from my goal," she said. "He laughed at me every time — but he also helped me off the ground. 

"I modeled myself after this man," Davis said. "He taught me everything I know about law enforcement: About being ethical, tactical and taking pride in the badge. Lee touched a million lives.

"It didn’t matter to him what color you were, your gender, your political affiliation, or all these other things that divide us. Are you willing to learn? That’s how he categorized people," she said.

Davis asked the members of the congregation how many had received training from Mr. Smith to raise their hands. About half of the people in the crowd raised their hands.

"Lee Smith was a giant among mortal men," Davis said. "As I look out into this room. it gives me slight comfort to know that he will live on forever through the people he taught."

Greater Grace Bishop Charles Ellis III delivered the eulogy Thursday.

Sgt. Lee Smith was an avid motorcyclist who taught motorcycle safety courses. He was also a longtime horseman and firearm safety instructor.

"I'm not sure you get over tragedies," he said. "But God helps you to get through it. We can feel pain but still be functional and do what God has called us to do. We get knocked down sometimes but we keep getting up."

Outside the church prior to Thursday's service, dozens of motorcycles lined up on Seven Mile, along with various Metro Detroit mounted units — a tribute to Mr. Smith's many years as a motorcycle and mounted cop.

Desmond Robinson, 47, was charged Saturday in connection with Mr. Smith's death. Robinson was arraigned on charges of reckless driving causing death, failure to stop at an injury accident scene and tampering with evidence. If convicted, he faces up to 15 years in prison.

The incident happened at 10:10 a.m. Aug. 14 while Mr. Smith was off-duty, jogging on Hines Drive and Middlebelt Road in Westland. Robinson allegedly struck Mr. Smith with his SUV and dragged him for 50 to 60 yards before speeding from the scene. 

Mr. Smith was pronounced dead at the scene. 

"By all accounts, Sgt. Smith was a dedicated, passionate, and skilled member of law enforcement who was going to retire soon," Wayne County Prosecutor Kym Worthy said in a statement. "In the blink of an eye, the alleged actions of this defendant destroyed the lives of his family, friends, fellow officers, and the many others he had yet to positively influence."

Robinson was arrested two days after the incident in Garden City because of a tip reported to Crime Stoppers of Michigan, Westland Police Chief Jeff Jedrusik told The News. The arrest was made before Mr. Smith’s funeral, which investigators said was a priority.

Mr. Smith was born Aug. 11, 1963, in Detroit, the youngest of six children. He graduated from Mumford High School in 1982 and earned his associate's degree in criminal justice from Wayne County Community College in 2002. He was a member of the Phi Theta Kappa Honor Society.

He joined the Wayne County Sheriff's Office in July 1992. His assignments included jail duty, Road Patrol, Mounted Unit, and the Special Response Team. His most recent command was Park Patrol. 

Mr. Smith was also an instructor for mounted officers, and trained deputies in defensive tactics, defensive driving, and pistol, shotgun and patrol rifle training. 

Wayne County Sheriff Benny Napoleon and other commanders salute the casket of Wayne County Sheriff's Sgt. Lee Smith.

"If not for him, I most certainly would not be a Wayne County sheriff's sergeant," Davis said. "(In the police academy) I could not hit the side of a barn (with a gun). Lee refused to let me fail, although I was a perfect stranger to him, and probably one of a million faces he'd seen in the academy.

"He took time practicing with me," Davis said. "I finally passed the shooting portion by what he called the hair of my chinny-chin chin, and I avoided losing my job."

An avid motorcycle enthusiast, Mr. Smith competed in police motorcycle competitions, and won several awards. He also taught motorcycle safety courses at Schoolcraft College and Motown Harley Davidson. 

His hobbies included martial arts, where he earned his black belt, playing drums, drag racing motorcycles and roller skating, He met his wife, Simone, at Northland Skating Rink.

In addition to his wife of 31 years, survivors include son Aaron; two sisters, Linda and Eileen; and three brothers, Raymond, Edward and John.

Mr. Smith was scheduled to be buried in Detroit Memorial Park West in Redford Townshi.

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Twitter: @GeorgeHunter_DN