A near-death experience and several federally declared disasters are among highlights of the career of crimefighter Jeffery T. Smith, who has announced plans to retire as Montgomery County undersheriff in January.
Smith, 44, decided to take retirement following 25 years at the Sheriff’s Department, but he won’t just be fishing and camping — he’ll be taking a job at the St. Johnsville Police Department while maintaining his role as Montgomery County STOP-DWI coordinator.
That’s a fitting role for the lawman who suffered serious injuries in 1999 after a drunken driver slammed into his truck while he was en route to a DWI checkpoint.
“It’s very fresh in my mind,” Smith said of the head-on crash that yielded broken ribs, 17 stitches in his knee and screws holding together a foot broken in six places.
The Fort Plain native and 26-year firefighter was playing two roles June 28 when flash flooding swept the village and killed a resident.
He was on a week’s vacation from his job as second in command at the Sheriff’s Department when the call came in.
It’s not the first time flooding hit his hometown. Tropical storms Irene and Lee left an impact in 2011, as did the massive overflow of the Mohawk River in 2006.
But seeing the Otsquago Creek inundate homes from a fire truck is something he’ll never forget.
“It was quite shocking,” Smith said.
The Fort Plain high school graduate earned his associate degree in criminal justice from Herkimer County Community College before taking a job at the Sheriff’s Department as a part-time corrections officer at age 19.
He rose to full time in corrections, then moved to the road patrol. He was promoted to sergeant, serving as K-9 officer, then an instructor for the DARE program, and then promoted to lieutenant before being selected by Montgomery County Sheriff Michael Amato to serve as undersheriff, a position he has held for the past 11 years.
Smith said he never had a specific goal in law enforcement, but rather sought to play a role in the field of helping people.
“I think when you start, it’s just something you want to be involved in. I just wanted to be involved to help people as much as I could,” he said.
Serving as undersheriff gave Smith a taste of the administrative side of law enforcement, which requires interaction with government that pays for it — a role that gave him a view of the difficult reality that pits available funding against work that law enforcement personnel consider essential.
Smith remembers calls for the dissolution of the county’s road patrol during a difficult budget year as well as budget cuts that come every year, developments he believes minimize the true impact deputies have on their communities.
“They don’t get recognition. I see each and every day how hard they work,” Smith said.
He said he wouldn’t trade the past for anything else, though. Despite being involved with investigating murders, chasing criminals and helping to coordinate response to chaotic flooding disasters, he said that’s what he signed up for.
“You get used to it, that’s what you’re here for, that’s what your training is for,” he said.
Proper training, he said, is what keeps deputies cool in difficult situations.
“Hopefully, if we’ve done a good enough job, our staff is prepared enough to go out and do it. Our staff never hesitates to do what they have to do, and it’s during disasters like that it’s really evident,” Smith said.
Though he’ll retire from the county in January, Smith said he expects to keep his feet in law enforcement.
Smith said he will be serving as a consultant to the St. Johnsville Police Department in western Montgomery County.
“I think it’s just time for a change. I want to look at public safety from a different perspective,” he said.