Benton County Sheriff Steve Keane announced his retirement Thursday, effective April 1, to heal from his battle with colon cancer.
In an interview with the Herald, he said he’s looking forward to a quieter life after years of nonstop work in law enforcement.
His job has kept him so busy that he carries two cellphones and a radio to stay in touch, he said. He hasn’t had a vacation for years without working by phone. He kept working while sick and exhausted from chemotherapy.
“I was still the sheriff. I just had to work. It’s the way I am wired,” Keane said. “I had people at work force me to accept their help.”
He was diagnosed with cancer in 2015. At first, he was told a colonoscopy found the cancer in stage one — a contained tumor in his colon.
“It was a big shock when he announced when he was sick,” said Sgt. Bob Brockman. “He has always been super competitive. There was no doubt in my mind that he wouldn’t win his battle.”
After a removing a foot of his large intestine, he received a call at 9 p.m. one night that was unsettling. Another doctor reviewed the removed piece and found it was in stage three — spread outside of the colon and into his lymph nodes.
I need to find something less stressful to let my body heal as I should.
Sheriff Steven Keane
“It was the hardest part for me,” he said. “I stayed up all night thinking I was going to die. Luckily it hadn’t spread to my organs.”
He was checked after chemotherapy and told he was clear, but the process of chemotherapy had taken its toll. He suffers from a lingering case of “chemo brain,” where at times his mind is fuzzy when remembering things.
“It affects me. It comes and goes,” Keane said. “Sometimes I can’t remember what I was reading … or people’s names. I really struggle.”
His job duties keep him working regardless of where he is or what time of day. After he turns in his badge, he plans to move to his cabin in Idaho to be closer to his parents, his kids and his grandchildren.
“I need to find something less stressful, to let my body heal as I should,” he said.
Hard to slow down
Relaxing and taking it easy isn’t that simple for Keane, who is highly competitive.
He raced motorcycles from when he was in high school until his 40s. In 2002, he was racing in Pasco and overshot a jump, hit the ground hard, twisted the throttle and rode into a wall. He broke seven ribs and a clavicle, and punctured a lung.
“It was a turning point and I sort of slowed down on racing,” Keane said. “I slept in a recliner for five weeks. I was lucky it was winter. I didn’t sneeze (from allergies) while in the cast.”
He stopped racing in 2008.
He limited himself to law enforcement and won the election for sheriff two years later.
His first taste of a cop’s life was as a reserve deputy in 1989. Then he was hired in 1991 for the Hanford Patrol by a government contractor, because he still had security clearance from serving as an Air Force nuclear weapons specialist for four years. A year later, he was hired as a full-time Benton County deputy.
His career in law enforcement is a source of pride. He found aspects of being a deputy more rewarding than he first thought.
“The arrest gives you temporary comfort, but it’s the rest that gives you true satisfaction,” Keane said. “You get injected into people’s lives. As a police officer, you can do so much.”
Programs like Shop with a Cop, giving out Christmas gifts, and delivering food or clothes to needy families without them expecting it are his favorite duties.
“They can really appreciate you as a person in uniform in a different light, as a person, not just as the authorities,” he said.
One of his biggest successes came in 2011. Keane began the creation of an anti-gang team to take on 1,000 members representing 30 gangs in the Tri-City area. He obtained funding for five officers to help prevent further gang growth. Yakima County law enforcement was pressuring gangs, and he feared the gang members would move to Benton County.
“It has been one of the more successful programs Sheriff Keane initiated at the office,” Brockman said.
‘I’m not a politician’
Some of the stress from the job comes with people dying in the jail and having to fire deputies for doing the wrong thing. It still bothers him that people died in jail, he said.
It’s something he still thinks about. It caused him to change the way the county handles prisoners to improve safety.
In his seven years as the sheriff overseeing 211 employees, he has terminated the employment of a few deputies and jail staff because of crimes and unethical behavior.
“I’m not a politician. I own up to my mistakes,” Keane said. “I treat people fairly and consistently but hold them accountable. I fired a lot of people and left them with dignity and treated them with respect.”
Keane is not always strictly about business. He enjoys camaraderie with deputies and staff. He remembers racing bicycles around the inside of a sheriff’s office while it was being remodeled in 2003. They were timed laps.
Another time, they battled to see who could roll across a floor the farthest in an office chair.
I treat people fairly and consistently but hold them accountable. I fired a lot of people and left them with dignity and treated them with respect.
Sheriff Steven Keane
“I’m pretty competitive. I like to play games,” he said. “I don’t remember who won. We had some pretty big cases at the time. Those team-building things really made us a great unit.”
Keane will miss talking with deputies, staff and citizens who stop by to talk, he said.
“I have an open-door policy. I will miss hearing about their lives,” he said.
And they will miss him.
“Steve has been a great friend and mentor for me,” Brockman said. “We did a lot of work together and had a lot of fun doing it.”
As Keane prepares to retire, the Republican Party is accepting applications to choose a temporary sheriff. The party provides a list of top candidates to the Benton County commissioners.
Whoever is chosen will run for election in the fall to keep the office and face another election when Keane’s term expires.
Keane won’t be involved. He will be in Idaho trying to relax and rest, but he is beginning to talk about doing something to keep himself busy.
“Something with motorcycles. I still love them.”