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McKee looks back on law enforcement career

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Photo submitted Fred McKee was one of three retiring sheriffs recognized at a meeting of the Montrose County Republican Women. U.S. Representative Scott Tipton (right) read a tribute commending McKee for his commitment to justice and service in Colorado.

After capping a 40-year career in law enforcement with four terms as sheriff of Delta County, Fred McKee is retiring. He declined to seek a fifth term in office, saying 16 years is enough. Mark Taylor, who was unopposed in the November election, will serve as the next sheriff of Delta County.

McKee said he didn't set out to become a peace officer, although he did a stint in the military, which often serves as a jumping off point for law enforcement.

Instead, he painted horse trailers, trained as a locksmith and joined a brother-in-law in the hog business in the San Luis Valley.

The hog business was tough going at times, and not looking to improve any time soon, so when the then-sheriff of Rio Grande County said he needed a graveyard dispatcher, McKee decided to give it a shot. He then applied for a job as a deputy sheriff, and when he was hired, the office put him through law enforcement training. After about four years on the job, he was promoted to senior deputy/investigator, then named undersheriff.

When Kamerzell was defeated in his bid for re-election, the new sheriff kept McKee on as undersheriff. Although they were pretty good friends, McKee decided to resign and run for sheriff of Rio Grande County. He was beat by 40 votes and found himself out of work.

Kamerzell had since been named director of the County Sheriffs of Colorado association and was aware that Bill Blair, the newly appointed sheriff of Delta County, was looking for an undersheriff. McKee applied for the job, and the rest, as they say, is history. He's now been with the Delta County Sheriff's Office for 27 years.

He was elected sheriff in 2003, when term limits forced Blair into retirement. McKee faced opposition in the first election, but has run unopposed the last three.

"The fact that Mark [Taylor] had an opportunity to run unopposed for a vacancy says a tremendous amount about the confidence that Delta County voters have in our administration," McKee said. "It's certainly not just me.

"When I was first elected, and Mark was appointed undersheriff, we wanted to become known as one of the finest law enforcement agencies on the Western Slope, if not the state. We went about building that with the help of a lot of different people and some tremendous county commissioners who have been very public safety minded. They helped us improve salaries for our staff, so we're able to compete with other agencies in selecting the quality of individuals we wanted to work for us. Then our goal was to make sure we were providing the training they needed to serve the public properly and be safe. Then equipment -- for a lot of years Delta County struggled with making sure we had the proper equipment.

"Our guys now, I believe, have the most modern equipment that's available to law enforcement personnel, from their firearms to Tasers to pack sets to body cameras. We want to make sure they're never at a disadvantage.

"So I think all those things together a really good team of individuals who care about this county," said McKee, who believes integrity is another essential component of his office.

McKee said he decided four years ago this would be his final term in office.

"There's a lot of sleepless nights, a lot of stress related to this position ... just a tremendous amount of responsibility. After about 16 years, it starts wearing on you a bit. It's just time to move on."

McKee said it's tough to fall back asleep after the phone rings at 2 or 3 a.m., alerting him to what often turns out to be a tense situation involving his deputies.

There's been a tendency in recent years for criminals to be more combative, to be more willing to go hands-on with peace officers. "It's pretty hard to go back to sleep when you know they might be out there in certain circumstances," he said of his deputies.

Jail inmates who are experiencing mental health issues are also a huge concern. "Those are the big things that keep you up at night," he said.

Fortunately, none of his officers have suffered any serious injuries, either in vehicle accidents or at the hands of criminals. "That's a credit to their training and their supervisors," he said.

Soon after taking office, McKee made the decision to let the undersheriff (meaning Taylor, because he's only had one) assume a lot of the day-to-day operations so he could represent Delta County in the greater law enforcement community.

He immediately got involved in the County Sheriffs of Colorado (CSOC), and through that association was able to connect with fellow law enforcement officers and with legislators. As president of the CSOC, he testified on a number of legislative bills related to gun control, OHV use and even the process for VIN inspections.

"It involved a lot of trips back and forth to Denver, but I think we did a lot of good things for the Delta County Sheriff's Office," he said.

McKee served on the board of directors for Center for Mental Health, and through that affiliation has developed a strong desire to address the issue of mentally ill people in our jails.

He said the initiative he's most proud of is legislation that prohibits mental health holds in jails without criminal charges.

The first bill he supported passed, but was vetoed by Governor John Hickenlooper, for what McKee admits were very good reasons. But through that veto, the governor established a statewide task force.

"I was appointed to that task force, and through our work we were able to come up with a bill Hickenlooper signed the next year," McKee said. "So today unless there's a criminal charge attached to a mentally ill individual, they can not be held in the jail."

That doesn't solve the problem of mentally ill inmates who have been determined incompetent to proceed through the judicial process.

"We have two of those inmates in our jail right now, so we need to figure out how to deal with that issue next," McKee said.

He traveled to Denver in late November to represent CSOC in discussions with the lieutenant governor, to bring these concerns to her attention.

"They're found incompetent to be prosecuted because they're so seriously ill, but they're still sitting in our jails," he explained. "These people are in serious crisis and they should be in a secure facility."

The issue of mental health also encompasses suicidal individuals. McKee said, "I don't even want to try to guess the number of suicides our agency has dealt with the last 16 years. On the other hand, I would guess the number of suicide attempts would be quadruple the number of actual events.

Sheriff's personnel are trained and are intervening in suicide attempts on a weekly basis. "That's very positive and it doesn't get enough mention," he said.

The sheriff's office has also been parternering with the Center for Mental Health to initiate a program that makes a ride-along therapist available for deputies. Once deputies have assured the situation is stable, they can leave the therapist on site, instead of spending hours tied up on intervention calls.

"Along that line, we've implemented a jail-based behavioral health program which puts a therapist in our jail," he added. This grant-funded program provides resources for detention officers when they see somebody in crisis. Although they primarily deal with substance abuse issues, the therapist can address other behavioral health problems and set them up with resources after their release.

"It's definitely lowered our recidivism rate," McKee said.

"Part of my goal was to make mental health better in Delta County and I think we're taken some serious steps forward."

McKee also served on the POST (Peace Officer Standards Training) board and was a founding member of Drug Free Delta County.

"The very capable treatment team and volunteers, working closely with Delta Drug Court and Family Court, have successfully intervened in many lives and have made a real difference in our community," he said.

As a civilian, he plans to lend his support to a countywide public safety tax proposal. The goal of this public safety tax, as discussed, is to benefit all law enforcement agencies in Delta County, McKee explained.

Once derived, the revenue would be divided among the different agencies to be used at their discretion. The primary goal, though, is to make sure all agencies in Delta County are able to compete for the best possible job applicants.

"All around us, other counties are implementing public safety taxes and we're falling behind in the number of staff we need, and in salaries. If we get too far behind, we're not going to be able to hire the quality of people we need to ensure we're properly providing the services we need."

McKee, who lives in Cedaredge with his wife Julie, say they have no plans to move anywhere else, but they're looking forward to the opportunity to do more camping and to see more of their kids and grandkids.

"It's been an honor to serve," he said. "I've got a lot of people to thank -- first and foremost, my wife Julie, who has put up with being a police officer's wife for 40 years and all the weekends I've been on-call or working. She's been a huge supporter of this career that I've had the definite privilege of doing."

"I also want to thank our great county commissioners, the DCI for fair and balanced coverage, and of course, our staff.

"We've got a tremendous quality of individuals providing service for Delta County," he said.

He says the staff and the county will be in good hands with Mark Taylor. "I hired Mark in December 2003 and I consider him my best friend," McKee said. "He's never been afraid to disagree with me and we've been able to work it out ... to agree to disagree. It's been a magnificent relationship."

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