On the heels of 9/11, the United States invited the world to Utah for the 2002 Winter Olympics. To help handle possible security issues, they turned to a woman with a passion for criminal justice.
Ellen Smith, of Stansbury Park, has a certain glamour about her as she walks, punctuated by the staccato of heels. When she speaks, her accent announces a different birthplace.
Smith grew up in Rhode Island in the 1960s when women were traditionally nurses or teachers, but she loved understanding crime and its motivations instead.
“In the state of Rhode Island there is quite a high proportion of crime, and I wondered how good people could make such bad choices,” Smith said. “It’s right on the ocean and obviously drugs would come in through there.”
While Smith’s parents were neither high school graduates nor wealthy, they lived in Newport, a town known for wealthy coastal estates. It was there Smith met the cross-section of the world who came there to sail.
“It was a great place for a child and it gave me aspirations for doing things,” Smith said. “I would rather grow up in no other place than Newport. I loved the ocean and outdoors.”
Her father drove a bus and her mother worked as a domestic in the estates. Her mother’s family immigrated from Portugal, spoke Portuguese at home, and raised powerful women including her great-grandmother.
“To be honest, my great-grandmother was a bootlegger,” Smith said. “She had a still.”
In addition to her great-grandmother, Smith’s mother and aunt were two more influential female relatives. Both joined The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and were responsible for funding church building projects and leading organizations.
These women inspired Smith to pursue an uncommon education and career path.
“My mother said, ‘Ellen there’s something you have to know. You could be anything you want to be. The only one that could stop you is yourself if you give up, and don’t work for it,’” Smith said.
After starting a family, Smith took a class in profiling homicides — identifying a criminal’s traits from the evidence — which lit a spark in her.
By the mid 1980s, Smith graduated from the University of Louisville with a Bachelor’s in Justice Administration and Law.
“I was very young and naive, but I believed in my heart that I could really make a difference, and I wanted to make a difference,” she said.
In the criminal justice system, Smith said she observed many minorities who were denied justice such as having an attorney, which extended into society as some were excluded from voting.
“I’ve seen an autopsy done and when they cut them and you open them up, we’re all the same,” she said.
Smith ended up investigating embezzlement for 15 years where she turned evidence over to the FBI to recover assets and make arrests. Smith also found herself living in Lima, Ohio, and became a single mother.
“I bought my own homes,” she said. “My children were older, so I knew that this career was something I wasn’t going to give up. It was something that there was a drive within me.”
In 2001, a position became available in security management with protective services for the 2002 Winter Olympics in Salt Lake City. Smith’s criminology background qualified her for the job. She worked with Mitt Romney starting in early 2001 to prepare for the Olympics.
“I had something that I knew, and they needed it,” Smith said.
Smith took the security position over the media center that filled the entire Salt Palace Convention Center.
“That’s where the press and the television worked,” she said. “It was a whole community within that one building, including a beauty salon and a bank. So it was a lot to secure.”
Smith’s background in criminology was used to prevent an attack like the 1996 Atlanta Olympic bombing, which occurred in front of the media center. Terrorists could address the whole world instantaneously from those centers, she said.
“You don’t go to work every day saying ‘Today I’m going to get killed,’ ” Smith said. “But you are aware it could happen. You live and you do your best everyday and you don’t look at what could be, but what is.”
The terrorist attacks on September 11, 2001, occurred after Smith had already spent months of 18 hour days securing the Olympics. The Olympic security plans changed direction that day.
“We had a very tragic event take place,” Smith said. “It affected all of us, not just the people in the Olympics. We needed something in America at the time to show that we still have strength and we could invite the world to Salt Lake City. You work hard, you do what’s right. Sometimes we don’t even know the abilities that we have until we have an opportunity to do it.”
Police officers from around the nation were brought in, including two she brought from Lima, Ohio, in addition to the Utah and local Salt Lake City police force.
“We were apprehensive, and did we feel we had to learn a lot quickly!” Smith said. “And we did.”
In addition, Smith was impressed by the local police departments.
“I read an article that Salt Lake City was one of the leading culturally diverse police departments,” Smith said. “And I thought how in the world? It’s because so many people serve missions. They can converse.”
Smith said she watched officers speak with people from all over the world in their language and heal hearts.
“We worked really hard, but everyone did. That’s why I felt Salt Lake City was an ideal place to have the Olympics,” Smith said. “No other Olympics had the volunteers that we had here. Good people that would volunteer their time and effort for a long period of time for the Olympics. They were so kind to people and good. It was a tremendous experience.”
After the Olympics, Smith was offered a top position in Homeland Security in Washington, D.C., in addition to security positions at the next two Olympics. She found herself, however, in love with Utah.
Smith stayed and married a security officer who had been stationed in the media center. Her life took a pause.
“I thought, ‘What in the world can I do out here?’” Smith said. “I could do embezzlement cases, but it requires a lot of time and a lot of travel. I wanted to be able to be with my husband.”
Now Smith polices the classroom and feels passionate about the influence she has on the justice system by teaching at the Community Learning Center in Tooele. She teaches high school concurrent enrollment classes — both high school and college credit — in Criminal Justice, Criminal Law, Careers in Law Enforcement, and Homeland Security.
“I can honestly say in the 13 years that I have been teaching with the Tooele School District, I’ve never had a behavioral problem,” Smith said.
Smith feels the Olympics allowed her to see what Utah was all about. She was impressed with the goodness of religious people of all denominations.
“I couldn’t believe how hard people work,” she said. “Being brought up on the ocean was a huge part of my life. Obviously there’s no ocean, but you have scenery that is beyond words.”
Smith feels she confidently embraced a top security position at the 2002 Winter Olympics because two powerful Portuguese women spoke these words:
“Get out there. Make a difference. Sitting at home and complaining, I see people that are so depressed. Don’t sit around. Take a chance, Get out there. Find something that you can contribute to.”