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After a career at the Suffolk County Sheriff’s Department, she will oversee the university’s emergency management, fire safety, emergency medical services, and police functions

“When President Monaco committed Tufts to being an anti-racist community, I really wanted to be part of that,” Yolanda Smith said. “And in conversations I’ve already had at Tufts, everyone has been receptive to change.” Photo: David Hill

June 1, 2021

Yolanda Smith, an accomplished criminal justice leader, will become Tufts University’s next executive director of public safety, effective July 1, following a national search that attracted more than 100 professionals from across the country.

Smith is currently special sheriff and superintendent of the Suffolk County (Massachusetts) Sheriff’s Department, where she serves as the public safety agency’s chief of staff.

In her role at Tufts, Smith will lead the department that includes the university’s emergency management, fire safety, threat assessment and management, emergency medical services, and police functions.

An immediate priority will be following up on the recommendations of the Working Group on Campus Safety and Policing created as part of Tufts’ commitment to being an anti-racist institution. These include increased transparency, greater community engagement, and increasing the use of non-sworn personnel for routine services not requiring a uniformed officer and of specially trained personnel to respond to mental health matters.

When Smith joined the Suffolk County Sheriff’s Department in 1995, she viewed her job as a corrections officer as a first step on the path to a career in policing. The Georgia native intended to follow in the footsteps of her father, who had served as chief of police at Savannah State University after a career in the U.S. Air Force.

But after Smith arrived at the sheriff’s department, she saw a huge need to expand services for women, who were at that time housed in a facility originally intended only for men, for the LGBTQI community, and for young offenders. “I found a home with people who needed my advocacy, but to help them, I had to stay and advance into supervisory positions.”

Working with “many, many staff” and “outstanding community partners,” Smith introduced gender-specific training and services for women and the first LGBTQI support group. She tapped a Connecticut model to help 18-to-25-year-olds earn high school diplomas, attend college, and learn trades.

Another innovation was Cooler Talk—weekly visits by Smith and command staff to housing units to listen to residents’ questions and concerns. She also created a less threatening uniform for some sheriff’s department personnel, so that those in custody were not always in exchanges with fully uniformed officers.

Last year, amid the civil unrest that followed the killing of George Floyd, she saw a “need to create spaces for our men and women in custody to express themselves.” She and her team collaborated with external partners to create “open circles” where people could talk about their own feelings, experiences, and traumas.

They were invited to raise their voices through art, poetry, and signs that were displayed around the facilities. “People learned to advocate for themselves,” Smith said. This approach is now something of a model for other county corrections departments.

Smith, whose three daughters are just beyond their college years, is now eager to contribute to the national conversation about what policing should look like, particularly on college campuses. “When President Monaco committed Tufts to being an anti-racist community, I really wanted to be part of that,” she said. “And in conversations I’ve already had at Tufts, everyone has been receptive to change. They want to be part of the solution.”

While her background may be atypical for higher education, Smith inspires confidence that her leadership style and skills can help Tufts advance new initiatives, said Nicole Holland, assistant professor and director of health communication, education, and promotion at Tufts University School of Dental Medicine.

A member of the university-wide search committee of students, faculty, and staff, Holland was impressed by Smith’s “nuanced understanding” of issues and the impact of small details of language. During the interview process, Holland said, “we could see the humanistic component of her leadership style at all levels.”

Smith stresses the importance of students feeling safe and confident that Public Safety is there to assist them. In an open conversation with Tufts students as part of the search process, Smith asked about their campus-safety concerns.

“What resonated with me was how actively she listened to us,” said search committee member Maame Opare-Addo, A21, who was at the time an undergraduate student. “It was clear that she is ready to work with and include students in this transformative effort.”

Ultimately, public safety is not the responsibility of any one person or any single department. “All of us at Tufts need to engage and be part of the conversation,” said Holland. “We have the opportunity to take a great step forward for our community.”

Captain Mark Roche, a 20-year veteran of the Tufts University Police Department and search committee member, agreed. “As a department, we have important goals related to training, certification, and how best to respond to students in crisis, to name a few,” he said. “Meeting those goals will require everyone’s commitment and close collaboration among public safety, student affairs, and many others. I think Yolanda will be able to hit the ground running, and she’ll have our support as we explore new directions for public safety at Tufts.”

Smith’s commitment to diversity and inclusion, collaborative leadership, and meaningful innovation ultimately distinguished her in an exceptionally strong pool of candidates, according to Barb Stein, vice president for operations, who chaired the search committee. The committee, which included stakeholders from all of Tufts’ Massachusetts campuses, conducted a search that impressed Opare-Addo as being “thorough, intentional, and thoughtful.”

“Committee members deserve our thanks for their many hours of hard work in finding a truly outstanding individual to lead our public safety team,” noted Executive Vice President Mark Howard.

Smith’s arrival provides an opportunity for also recognizing the efforts of Chip Coletta, who served as interim director of public safety at the university, said Howard. “Over the past year, Chip, Tufts Public Safety, and the Tufts University Police Department have done a remarkable job in the face of unprecedented challenges. The professionalism of this team will be an important foundation as we move forward. We’re tremendously grateful for their dedication and service.”