Tommie Smith, Santa Monica College track coach and 1968 Olympic gold medalist, has filed a complaint against three Santa Monica police officers who rushed onto the school's running track April 9, ordering him to drop the starter's pistol he was using during track practice.
Smith said he was working with his team when the policemen, one with his gun drawn, charged onto the college campus and accosted him. As the police approached, Smith was talking with Olympian Johnny Gray, the U.S. 800-meter record-holder.
With the coach's athletes looking on, Smith said, the police shouted: "Drop it," and forced him to put his hands behind his back while they frisked him.
"The athletes were saying, 'He's the head coach,' " Smith said. "It could very easily be seen that it was a starter's pistol."
The gun that Smith was holding, standard track equipment used for signaling the start of races, was a .32 caliber starter's pistol with a solid barrel incapable of firing bullets. Such pistols fire only blanks.
The surprised Smith said that he dropped the pistol immediately. The officers, whom the Santa Monica Police Department would not identify, returned the pistol when they realized that it was harmless, Smith said.
Then one of the officers, whom Smith described as "a 20-year-old rookie," stood nose to nose with the coach and asked, "Got a problem?" Smith said that he answered, "No, sir."
As the officers were leaving, they finally asked Smith's name, he said.
Police had been called when Smith was seen standing near the college at 16th Street and Pearl Avenue in Santa Monica, starter's pistol in hand, as he waited for his runners to return.
According to police, a passer-by reportedly called the department on a citizens' band radio, reporting that a man was brandishing a gun on a public street.
James Keane, Santa Monica police chief, said he would comment on the incident after getting the results of an investigation by the department's Internal Affairs Division. Keane added: "This is only a big deal because Tommie Smith is an athlete."
Otherwise, the department declined to discuss the incident. Keane said Monday that adecision based on an investigation by Internal Affairs was a week away.
Smith was unhappy with an earlier report in the Santa Monica Evening Outlook that said he had not gone to the college for three days after the incident because he was afraid of further police action. Smith said that that was not true. "They definitely scared me, but I'm not a kid who can be scared off his job by the police," he said.
He added: "Journalists are always making Tommie Smith out to be a troublemaker."
Smith gained notoriety at the 1968 Olympic Games in Mexico City when he and fellow U.S. track star John Carlos raised their fists in a black power salute when they received their medals.