When she was about 13, Gainesville Police Officer Dontonya Smith joined the Police Explorers as a part of Post 917, the local section in Gainesville. About 32 years later, the Florida Association of Police Explorers named her the 2018 “Explorer Advisor of the Year.”

The Police Explorers is a program offered for young adults from when they enter high school to about 20 years old. Members meet weekly, learn about different aspects of law enforcement and help GPD officers at events.

I met with Smith at the Oscar B. Lewis Center, where the Explorers meet, to talk about her background with the program and her recent accomplishment.
Q: Tell me how you felt winning “Explorer Advisor of the Year.”
A: Shocked. (laughs) I don’t really like the spotlight, so it’s almost uncomfortable for me but I’m one of those people. I love to work but I’m kind of that behind-the-scenes worker. I’m grateful that someone took knowledge to what I do, but it’s still kind of — I think there’s a lot of people involved in what I do, so I think it stands out for a bunch of us.
Q: How did you win the award? Did you apply, or were you nominated?
A: My lieutenant put me in. He’s now retired. Lt. (Steve) Weaver retired in the beginning of June but before he left, he put me in for this award.

Q: And when did you find out?
A: They gave me the award and thanked me at the end of the year conference that we did at the end of June (pauses) or beginning of July (laughs) — somewhere in there. I’ve been traveling a lot. My days are all running together.
Q: So, how long have you been working with the Explorers?
A: I have been at GPD since 2000, so 18 years now, and I’ve been working with the Explorers since around 2012. Well, I take that back. I worked with them some before then, but I’ve been their advisor since 2012.
Q: How was the growth in becoming an advisor for the Explorers and working with them for the past six years?
A: It was my goal. Everybody has their goals when they become cops. Some people: “I just want to be K-9. I want to be a detective.” I actually like working with youth, so that was my goal: to work and to be an Explorer advisor.

I was an Explorer for GPD, so I’ve come through the ranks of Explorer all the way to police officer. I was kind of like, “That’s what I want to do. I want to go back and help kids the way those guys helped me.” I wanted to give back.
Q: How old were you when you joined the Explorers?
A: Wow, 13 or 14. So, I’ve been working in law enforcement since like 13 or 14. You can start now at 14, but back then, we were a little younger when we started.

To make it even funnier, Chief (Tony) Jones — who is now the chief of police — was my Explorer advisor when I was an Explorer. So literally, he’s known me since I was 13. (laughs) That’s how far back we go. I call him my GPD daddy because he’s known me longer than a lot of folks have.
Q: What inspired you to join the Explorers when you were so young?
A: Because I thought I wanted to be the police, and I really like exploring because it gives you an idea. You get to see what all the police do, and you get to decide. I’ve had some kids that become Explorers, and then they decide, “oh, yeah, this isn’t what I want to do.”

But, it does give you every facet of law enforcement. We have meetings every week, and every week I bring in different people, too. I bring in other agencies so that they can see it’s not just GPD. I’ll also do military because it’s also a paramilitary group. I have the military come talk to them about what they offer. So, the kids can see a little bit of everything.

I love the fact that back then, I kind of, “oh maybe I want to be the police. Let me see.” And sure enough, I did. I came back to be the police.
Q: What was it about the experience that kind of pushed you forward into this career?
A: It was such a family unit, and that’s the one thing I love about my crew now and I try to keep it that way. I always say these are my kids, and I always tell the parents, “When I have your child, it’s like they’re mine.”

When you become law enforcement, it’s like you’re one big family so they get to see how that’s like even as an Explorer. That’s the part I love the most.

Follow Jessica Curbelo on Twitter @jesscurbelo and contact her at [email protected].