NIAGARA FALLS, N.Y. (WIVB)– Ever since he was little growing up in the Riverside area, Joel Smith wanted to help people.

“The environment I grew up in, high drug volume lots of fights, assaults, high crime area. And I always wanted to do something to help take that away.”

He turned to a career in law enforcement as a way to make a difference joining the Niagara Falls Police in 2009. He worked hard to climb the ranks and this May made history becoming the first Black Lieutenant in the department’s 129-year history.

” I don’t want to let my community down, so I’ll always exemplify professionalism, service, and community policing every call as a supervisor and I’m looking forward to it and thankful I’m here.”

And it’s a responsibility Smith doesn’t take lightly. He’s hoping to change the narrative between police and communities of color.

“If you have an experience with me on a call for service want you to leave that experience saying he’s not bad. He treated me with respect and decency and that’s what I’m going to demand from the officers I have to oversee. Professionalism, respect, and we can bring two sides together so they don’t see us as threats and someone that just wants to shot and kill them.”

Smith started in law enforcement as a school resource officer and credits his success to community policing.

“When I see them out in the street they don’t see a police officer, they see Joel, they see coach. So that apprehension that tension, it’s not there because they see me as a human being and as a person who genuinely cares for them.”

Superintendent of Niagara Falls Police John Faso says Smith’s dedication to his job and his love for the community make him perfect for the new role.

“I kind of refer to him as a gentle giant. He just has that demeanor where he’s somebody who’s very approachable. I think people feel comfortable around him and he also brings his work ethic to the department. He takes his job to heart.”

Smith says he knows he won’t be able to ease tensions overnight but he believes in his police force and is excited to be part of the positive change he always wanted to see .

“Law enforcement is a tough job. Are there changes that need to be made? Absolutely. Are we portrayed one way? Absolutely. But I just always take it as one call of service at a time.”

Kelly Khatib is a digital reporter who has been part of the News 4 team since 2019. See more of her work here.