"Are you nuts?" is not my usual way of starting out an interview.
But it was the question that seemed most appropriate when I talked this week with Doug Smith, who was Tucson police chief in the 1990s.
He said it isn't the first time in recent weeks that his sanity has been questioned. "That was what my wife's first response was," Smith said. "She asked, 'What part of living don't you like?' "
Smith, who still lives in the Tucson area, has had a couple of jobs since leaving the top job with the Tucson Police Department 4 1/2 years ago. But his new assignment is unquestionably the most challenging.
He left Tuesday for Afghanistan, where for at least the next year he will be contingent commander of the Afghan Civilian Policing Project. It's a mouthful of a title, but the assignment is simple: Smith will be the top American civilian police official in that country.
Smith is an employee of DynCorp International, a private company hired by the State Department to rebuild and oversee civilian police forces in Afghanistan, Iraq and several other war-torn countries. He has a one-year contract with an option for a second year. But he said his current plans are to take the assignment for only one year.
Smith came to Tucson in mid-1994 after 26 years as a police officer in Minnesota and Michigan - the last three as chief of the Ann Arbor (Mich.) Police Department. After four years as TPD chief, he resigned to head the state's High Intensity Drug Trafficking Area group. In 2000, Smith's job was eliminated, and he became vice president of a Tucson-based company that developed highly praised software helping law enforcement agencies find links among seemingly unrelated crimes.
When he left Michigan for Tucson, his former colleagues described Smith as "shiny-eyed and idealistic" and "the kind of guy that was always right around the corner when it hit the fan." Those are traits Smith will need during the next year.
Dyncorp ( policemission.dyncorp.com ) is offering U.S. police officers a starting salary of $100,324 for a year plus free room, board and medical insurance. The company says it is "seeking police officers of any rank who are eager to accept a challenging and rigorous assignment."
"Challenging and rigorous" hardly describes the job that will be dumped in Smith's lap.
Dyncorp initially asked him if he was interested in heading police operations in Iraq. But Smith said he told them, "It doesn't sound like there's a whole lot to do over there as a police chief when there's still bombings all over the place."
Several months later, they offered him the job in Afghanistan and he took it.
Although the U.S. military has about 15,000 troops in Afghanistan, it still is a dangerous place for Americans. The day before Smith was interviewed for the job, a bomb blew up the Dyncorp headquarters in Kabul, the capital. Three Americans were among those killed.
Afghanistan had an operating police system before the Taliban took control of the country in 1996, Smith said. But under the religious zealots, civilian police officers had "very little to do" as the Taliban enforced their own version of law.
Rebuilding a police force in a country in the midst of a war is a mind-boggling undertaking. The U.S. military will provide protection for Smith; for his trainers from the United States, Germany and Great Britain; and for the fledgling Afghanistan police force.
While the United States has multilevel policing - local, county, state and federal - only one police force is in Afghanistan: a federal one. It's as if FBI agents were the only police officers in the United States, issuing speeding tickets and investigating everything from shoplifting to murder to terrorism threats.
Smith won't say how many police officers are in Afghanistan, but it will be his responsibility to get more trained, equipped and deployed so the Americans can eventually leave.
"I want to build a strong police force for the civilian population," Smith said. That training will include sessions on human rights, he said - a concept foreign to the Taliban.
Smith lives on a ranch outside Tucson. So why would he leave that and his family for the dangers of Afghanistan to help people he doesn't know?
He's just as "shiny-eyed and idealistic" as he was 10 1/2 years ago when he became Tucson police chief.
"It's the kind of personal and professional challenge that just doesn't come along very often," Smith said this week. "It's a tremendous opportunity to make your mark on history.
"There's a definite component of patriotism that goes along with this," he added. "I was never in the military. This is sort of a payback. It's a tremendous adventure and an opportunity to give back.
"It's going to be an adventure, that's for sure."