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Keen on Keane : The Top Cop Steps Down Accompanied by All the Fuss He Tried to Avoid When He Was Chief

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Jim Keane recalls the day he chugged up the California Incline in a ’46 Chevy, landing in the beach burg of Santa Monica with $10 in his pocket and “not much future.”

He was wrong about that.

Last week, Keane got the motorcade and retirement lunch to prove it as denizens of Santa Monica and law enforcement gathered to honor him on his departure as the city’s top cop. Santa Monica Police Chief James B. Keane, 59, headed the department for 12 of his 34 years on the force.

The new chief, James Butts, 37, formerly of the Inglewood Police Department, walked in the door Monday to find a freshly painted office and, in a drawer, the keys to the office and a note from Keane, “Call if you need me.”

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That simple, sincere offer seems to epitomize Keane’s low-key, no-nonsense style. Self-effacing to a fault, Keane cheerfully tells a reporter he is a “has-been” not worth talking to even while scores of people are filing into the Miramar-Sheraton Hotel ballroom to pay him homage.

Indeed, one speaker, Los Angeles County Sheriff Sherman Block, said he was surprised that Keane would ever agree to such an event.

Block and other speakers debunked in short order any notion of Keane as a law enforcement dinosaur:

How many retiring police chiefs are praised by a community agency director because of their respect for women? Or don’t carry or own a gun? Or refused to give homeless people a one-way ride to the city’s borders just to get them out of sight?

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“He’s unique among men in power,” said Vivian Rothstein, director of the Ocean Park Community Center. “He really respects women.”

Rothstein said when Keane was asked by residents to run the homeless out of town, he told them if they wanted the Police Department to break the law, they’d have to get a new chief.

“Unlike some people in law enforcement who believe civil rights are an impediment to law enforcement, Chief Keane appropriately understands it is an important role of law enforcement to protect civil rights,” Santa Monica City Atty. Bob Myers said in an interview.

Oh, Keane was not above “taking care of” a parking ticket for former police chiefs and other law enforcements bigwigs. “The way he’d take care of them was to pay them,” Santa Monica Police Capt. Tom Mapes said. Keane’s desk drawer was full of parking ticket receipts, Mapes said, evidence of his own particular brand of professional courtesy.

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A Massachusetts native and Air Force veteran, Keane came to Santa Monica from Seattle in 1955 after leaving the service. His first job was in the Sears stockroom. Keane joined the department in 1957, and earned bachelor’s and master’s degrees while rising through the ranks.

Keane said he didn’t expect to go far in California because he lacked the all-important connections needed in his native Boston. “I was flabbergasted you didn’t have to know anybody,” he said. “It was an awful healthy feeling.”

A committed homebody with a wife and grown daughters, Keane said he agreed to a farewell lunch, instead of a dinner, because people should be home with their families at night and not sitting around with “some old retired chief.”

Of his decision to retire, Keane says simply: “I think most police chiefs stay on too long. The organization needs new blood and energy.”

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Although he assiduously avoided the limelight for much of his career as chief, Keane made international news in 1985 when he used city funds to buy a one-way plane ticket to Miami for a repeat sex offender with mental problems to get him off Santa Monica streets.

(In an earlier incident, Florida authorities had shipped a prostitute to California for Santa Monica police to handle. The sex offender on the loose in Santa Monica told police that he wanted to go to Florida and Keane was happy to oblige.)

Keane bought the ticket to protest the inability of California’s mental health and penal systems to keep the guy behind locked doors. “The citizens of Santa Monica loved me,” Keane said. “I got death threats from Florida. The important thing is, no more women got hurt.”

The sex offender was picked up for exposing himself in Florida and returned to California months later under a flurry of television lights and has been incarcerated ever since, Keane said. “He was a perfect example of the failure of the system.”

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The same might be said about the current homeless problem in Santa Monica, for which Keane has taken substantial heat. Keane said the matter is frustrating to his police officers because 30% of their calls are about the homeless. Unless there is a violation of law, there is nothing police can do, Keane said.

“Some people are glad I’m going because of the homeless problem,” Keane said. “They think there’s a magic solution.”

Keane also came under fire in 1988 when activist Don Jackson came to Santa Monica and tried to get him fired for not hiring and promoting minorities. A federal lawsuit is pending, but the City Council backed the chief. Keane said the lawsuit upset him because minority hiring is one area where he would award himself an “A.” Minorities and women account for 40% of the city’s 195 officers; 30 of the officers are women, including Keane’s daughter, Kathy Keane. “I’m very proud of that,” he said.

Keane acknowledges that women and minorities have not yet risen through the ranks to the upper echelons of the department.

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He is leaving law enforcement at a time of unparalleled controversy stemming from the Rodney King beating and widespread suspicion that police officers are too quick to hit or shoot a suspect. “I’ve never seen violence so evident as it is now. Officers respond to violence, causing a split community,” he said.

The biggest change in police work over the years is the loss of respect for the officer in uniform: “When an officer arrived at the scene 30 years ago, everybody did what he said,” Keane said.

Keane kept his force in check with a number of discipline cases begun by the department rather than in response to citizens’ complaints, Myers said. “That’s a good indication a police chief is serious about ensuring all his employees observe the rule of law.”

This week, Keane is at home in Santa Monica unpacking his files. He has a new lounge chair, a new tennis racket and enough plaques to wallpaper his home. They are filled with such words as honesty , integrity and credibility .

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Keane said he plans to spend time with his family, play tennis, go to the racetrack and “hope I don’t get bored.”

But if things get tough, Keane can always strap on one of his gifts, a carefully lettered signboard, and stake out a corner. “Santa Monica Police Department Veteran,” the sign reads. “Will work for angel hair pasta, croissants and Perrier.”


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