James Smoak has a bit of advice for young people considering a career in law enforcement.

“Pick a career, not because of the money, but because it’s something you want to do in life,” he said. “Do something you love.”

Smoak, 60, retired on April 3 after serving as the Bamberg Police Department’s top officer since 2018. He’s been at the department for 26 years.

He was inspired to enter law enforcement when he was 18 years old and pulled over by a state trooper on Cannon Bridge Road in 1982.

“I was stopped for improper passing,” he said.

A possible tornado hit the Town of Bamberg at U.S. Highway 301.

“And the interaction wasn’t a matter of, ‘Here’s your ticket, I’ll see you in court,’” Smoak said.

“It was a conversation,” he added.

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“He probably stayed there 20, 30 minutes just talking,” he said. That was before officers wore body cameras and had in-car cameras.

“While I was talking to him, I’m like, ‘This seems like a pretty neat job,’” he said.

“It was just the interaction. Even though I got a ticket, it was a positive interaction,” he said.

“Just because somebody might get a citation, doesn’t mean we can’t help them,” he added, “It’s all in how you treat people.”

Smoak said that philosophy has guided him throughout his law enforcement career, which has included his time at the Bamberg Police Department and four years of his eight-year stint in the U.S. Air Force.

Smoak became police chief after the retirement of then-chief George Morris.

Smoak has enjoyed his career.

The best moments are “when somebody comes to you and they give you credit for them changing their life around,” he said.

“I had a young lady who came to me to tell me that I got her off drugs,” he said. “Really, it wasn’t me. It was her.”

“I didn’t go through the withdrawals, any of that stuff,” he said.

The woman was charged with a criminal drug offense, but Smoak took time to talk to her, he said.

“Not every arrest is negative,” he added.

“I mean, I’ve left the jail shaking people’s hands,” he said.

If a suspect faced a minor misdemeanor, such as simple possession of marijuana, Smoak would work with the suspect, he said.

“We can always do a conditional discharge which will allow them to get that off their record, just things like that,” he said.

“We do have some people that, like, they may possess cocaine and never been in trouble – and I’m talking about a real small amount – we might do them under a city ordinance because if they don’t have any record, you don’t really want that to be an impact the rest of their lives,” he said.

Smoak said the most difficult experience he’s had as an officer took place while he was off-duty.

He was driving his marked patrol car from a training program in Mt. Pleasant when traffic came to a halt on the interstate in North Charleston.

“I knew pretty much there was an accident and with me being right there in a patrol car, I figured, ‘Well, let me see what I can do to help,’” he said.

Smoak said a 15-month-old baby was wedged inside of a vehicle.

The baby had been strapped in a car seat, but the car seat wasn’t properly installed and anchored.

“This caused the little fella to get bounced around,” Smoak said.

Smoak performed CPR on the baby, “But he took his last breath in my hands,” he said.

Smoak has seen technology change in law enforcement over the years.

“Chief Morris, he was older, but he was very good about trying to keep the department with the times,” Smoak said.

“He had me do the legwork, research, as far as getting the computers in the car. I’m not the most computer-savvy person in the world, but I was able to get us up and rolling,” he said.

When Smoak started with the department, tickets and reports were written manually. Now both are done by computer.

Smoak also noted that there have been three unsolved homicide cases during his career in Bamberg.

“People know,” he said.

“People will sometimes be fearful to come talk to us. Some have the logic that they’re not a snitch, but you know, law enforcement is only so good. Our community and people that come in and talk to us, it can lead to a conviction,” Smoak said.

The unsolved homicide cases include:

• Eugene Folk, 35, who died on April 25, 2019

• Faizon Kay-Shawn Donaldson, 21, who died on Aug. 16, 2019

• Dylan Richberg, 22, who died on Nov. 10, 2019

Smoak said the S.C. Law Enforcement Division is assisting with the investigations. Anonymous tips can be reported by phone to 1-888-CRIME-SC or 803-245-2462.

Smoak’s retirement will last one month, he said.

He’ll then work as a Barnwell County Sheriff’s Office deputy.

Smoak said his one-month retirement won’t slow him down.

“I’ll stay busy. I have to work. My wife calls me a workaholic,” he said.

“I enjoy work, period. I’ve got plenty of it, too,” he added.

Smoak said he likes to play golf and hasn’t gone fishing in three years. He plans to find some time to fish over the next several weeks, he said.

Smoak said he’s mostly looking forward to spending time with his family, especially his two grandchildren: Connor, 5 and Tanner, 3.

Smoak and his wife have three adult children: Savannah, Taylor and Zachary.

Smoak is grateful for Regina Gatling, who worked as his assistant chief. She will be sworn in as the next chief in a couple of weeks.

He also appreciates the work of Bamberg police office manager Karen Proveaux and victim’s advocate Connie Haddock.

There are currently eight full-time officers and one part-time officer at the Bamberg Police Department.

“Nobody has ever worked for me, they’ve worked with me,” Smoak said.

“I wouldn’t ask them to do anything I wouldn’t do myself,” he added.

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