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New Benton County sheriff takes oath today

Steve Keane has been taking orders for two decades while working his way through the law enforcement ranks.

Then in April, the career lawman decided he wanted to be the boss.

His voter-approved promotion to Benton County sheriff almost was guaranteed when no one filed to challenge him.

But as the days have wound down to his takeover, reality has set in for Keane that now he will have the final say in what affects the employees of his department, the inmates they watch over and the citizens they protect.

Keane, 48, will be sworn in today as the county's 13th sheriff, along with the new coroner, John Hanson, and commissioner, Shon Small.

The 1 p.m. ceremony is at the Benton County Justice Center in Kennewick before Superior Court Judge Carrie Runge.

Sheriff Larry Taylor, who opted not to seek re-election to his fourth term, will lead the county's new animal control service after the first of the year.

"It's really started to dawn on me what the responsibilities are to the citizens we serve," said Keane, who has been captain of the law enforcement division since 2008.

As captain, the Richland resident led the patrol deputies, detectives and reserve officers and been responsible for making some decisions and recommendations to the sheriff, but the final say "stops with me now," he said.

Keane moved to the Tri-Cities after serving as a nuclear weapons specialist in the Air Force from 1981-85, and began his law enforcement career as a reserve deputy in 1989.

He then joined Hanford Patrol in 1991 and was hired as a full-time sheriff's deputy the following year.

When Keane announced his intent to become the county's top cop, he said he wanted to increase partnerships with citizens in the community he has called home for 25 years.

That remains one of Keane's top priorities. He plans to create a citizens advisory committee made up of a cross-section of county residents.

"I want a committee that meets regularly about what's going on in the community, even if it's just a quality of life issue and not a criminal issue," Keane said.

Typically, when sheriff's officials hear from the community, it's a complaint about something or a compliment for a deputy. Citizens often don't comment about other issues because they don't want to be a bother to the busy deputies, Keane said.

The committee would provide a way for sheriff's administrators to be better connected to everyone in the county.

"We need to rely on each other to get the job done. We can't stand alone," Keane said. "We work well with other agencies ... and we can be more efficient with help from the community."

Because of the limited number of deputies on the road in the large county, residents need to help be the eyes and ears for law enforcement, and call in anything suspicious they see, Keane said.

"If you have everybody with their eyes open, you have extra patrols out there," he said.

Getting rid of gangs and their criminal activity also is at the top of Keane's list -- another thing he says will need the help of the community to be addressed.

"I don't think we can arrest our way out of a gang problem," Keane said.

It's going to take a combination of enforcement, punishment, educational programs and parent support, including holding parents accountable if their children commit gang crimes, he says.

"We've been fortunate (that) we haven't had more gang-related problems," Keane said, adding that there are 1,000 different gang members in the Tri-Cities. "Once gang problems infiltrate the area, it's hard to get rid of."

Budget shortfalls are going to continue to be the biggest challenge Keane faces as he leads the sheriff's office into a new decade.

The transition to the top should be relatively smooth since Keane knows the history of the department and has had an advantage of spending the past few months getting up to speed on the sheriff's job.

"The Benton County Sheriff's Office has a good reputation in the community; crime rate's low and satisfaction's high," Keane said. "But that doesn't mean there aren't things that need to improve."

Keane said he wants to set out a vision for the department for the next three to five years. He also plans to develop a mission statement and strategic plan.

And he hopes to find a way to deal with the rising medical costs of jail inmates and fill the remaining open bed space in the nearly 800-bed jail through contracts with other entities.

The jail's daily population averages less than 600 inmates and while capacity is 796, he said realistically they hold about 720 safely.

Keane also wants to build more harmony between the patrol and corrections divisions and plans to have the undersheriff stationed in the jail instead of in the administrative offices.

"I want us to be one organization, not two separate organizations," Keane said, adding that simple things like having corrections officers and deputies train together can make a difference. "I want to see if there's a better way to do things."

Keane is keeping the administrative staff in the jail the same, but has three new appointments he will make on the patrol side after Jan. 1.

His second-in-command, Jerry Hatcher, will be familiar to the undersheriff's job. Hatcher spent 15 years with the sheriff's office and served two years as Taylor's undersheriff before being asked to step down in 2003 because of an unspecified internal personal issue.

Hatcher was reassigned to patrol lieutenant and is a senior manager at Bechtel.

Patrol Lt. Clay Vannoy is being appointed to fill Keane's captain position and Cpl. Chuck Jones will be promoted the patrol lieutenant, Keane said.

Paula Horton: 582-1556; phorton@tricityherald.com

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