In recognition of National Police Week and the upcoming 2024 election cycle, we sat down with Justin Smith, CSSE member and former Sheriff of Larimer County, Colorado, to recognize the work of law enforcement officers and the sacrifices they make, including their contribution to keeping our elections safe and secure.
Can you describe your current or past role in law enforcement?
I spent 35 years in law enforcement. I entered the field as a sheriff’s cadet in the late 1980s as America fought to handle the unprecedented waves of dangerous drugs, gangs, and violent crime. Through my career, due to the dedication and sacrifice of so many, we witnessed a quarter-century of declining crime and increased peace and prosperity across our nation. Sadly, as I completed my last dozen years as an elected county sheriff, we witnessed many of those gains rolled back as violence resurged.
With respect to your law enforcement experience and role as a member of CSSE, why do you think it is important that our elections are free, fair, and secure?
Much of America’s history of peace and prosperity can be attributed to our tendency to focus on the ties that bind us as a people. While we come from tremendously diverse backgrounds and have differing opinions on political issues, there has been an unwritten contract that we recognized that we share the same overall values. We took for granted that partisanship was checked at the door as it pertained to supporting the election process. Win or lose, the vast majority of voters respected the outcome of our elections, which cemented their faith in our democracy. As peace officers, we know that we can be effective at our jobs only if the citizens we serve have faith in the system. We witness firsthand the destructive power of doubt and distrust. As peace officers, we know that for the future of our communities and our nation, we must protect our elections process. I joined CSSE because I feel a duty to stand up for free, fair, and safe elections.
What value have you observed in partnerships between law enforcement and election officials? Feel free to share an example of how you have worked with election officials in your role in law enforcement.
Throughout my career starting as a deputy sheriff, we always had a positive and collaborative working relationship with our county clerk’s office when it came to the administration of the elections process. We responded when called to assist with ballot and facility security. Later, as the elected sheriff, I formed a bond with my elected clerk and recorder and took advantage of the opportunity to better know the current election process. I made intentional efforts to support my clerk and her staff privately and publicly because I understood the critical importance of that process to our nation’s well-being.
Can you share some of your proudest accomplishments in your law enforcement experience where you feel you supported and advanced democracy?
Local law enforcement agencies are expected to be the guardians of the Constitution and democracy in so many ways. We were not simply enforcers of the law but, even more importantly, the protectors of the constitutional rights of our community. We live by the tenet that we must always protect the rights of our citizens over seeking a specific outcome in an individual case. At one point, in 2020, my deputies put themselves in harm’s way to protect a group of protestors who were in our community to protest law enforcement officers. In the end, the protestors thanked my deputies for protecting their First Amendment rights to gather and petition their government — even when the subject of the protest was the profession of law enforcement.
Do you have any other thoughts that you would like to share about National Police Week?
Being a police officer is about raising your hand and taking a sacred oath to stand up for something much bigger than yourself. It’s about putting aside your own self-interest for the long-term interest of your community and your nation. True sacrifice requires more than words, it requires work. We have all paid some price to uphold that oath and we all carry scars — physical and emotional — for our service. Far too many of us have witnessed our brothers and sisters lose their life for this cause of upholding and protecting the principles of our democracy. We must always remember that there is no higher calling than to make these personal sacrifices for our principles.
Learn more about the Committee for Safe and Secure Elections here.