Benton County's top cops to retire

Two veteran cops with almost 70 years of combined experience at the Benton County Sheriff's Office say they have mixed emotions about retirement.

Undersheriff Paul Hart, who holds the record for longest-serving sheriff's employee, has spent 35 years enforcing the laws of Benton County.

"I'm a little excited, a little bit nervous," said Hart, 58, about how he will feel Monday morning with no place to go and no uniform to put on. "This has been my family for 35 years."

For more than 32 of those years, Sheriff Larry Taylor was working right alongside Hart. Taylor, who decided not to seek a fourth term as sheriff, is the second longest-serving sheriff's official.

Taylor, who spent 18 months with the Coeur d'Alene Police Department before returning home to the Tri-Cities, officially ends his law enforcement career today, 34 years to the day that it started.

"It's been a very, very enjoyable and rewarding career," Taylor, 55, said. "This chapter of my life has been wonderful."

And while he acknowledges it's "a little weird" to not be in law enforcement anymore, Taylor can't hide his excitement about his new job as manager of the county's new animal control service.

"What's so cool about it, it's another community service department, but we've never had it before. It's not taking over a department, it's creating a new department," he said.

Hart, who moved to Kennewick from Walla Walla when he was 15, worked for the city of Kennewick water department before he took a $200-a-month pay cut to join the sheriff's office.

He started as a deputy at the county's 34-bed jail in Prosser, and moved through the ranks, holding a variety of posts in the patrol and detectives divisions, and has been a member of the Benton County SWAT team since it formed in 1978.

"That was my only thing left to go out on -- the SWAT call-outs (since becoming an administrator)," Hart said, adding that he's not going to miss the 4 a.m. raids.

Hart was appointed undersheriff in 2003.

Hart was Taylor's supervisor for a while, when he was the lieutenant overseeing the major crimes unit and Taylor was a detective. Taylor then became Hart's superior when he was appointed captain of the law enforcement bureau in 1996, then elected sheriff two years later.

Taylor said the undersheriff's post "requires the most implicit trust," and he knew Hart was a proven leader and someone he could rely on to run the department his absence.

"He's somebody I have tremendous respect for," Taylor said. "I love him like a brother, because we are that close."

Hart and Taylor say they are proud to be leaving the sheriff's office as one of the top-run sheriff's offices in the state and much improved from when they started.

Hart said he remembers the early years when they worked out of a tiny building on Kennewick Avenue that had one bathroom that also served as the records area -- it had a bathtub that was covered with plywood and filing cabinets were stacked on top.

Through the years, the new justice center was built, along with a 107-bed jail that was doubled years later to hold 196 inmates, then expanded to the 796-bed facility. Training and hiring standards have increased and equipment has gotten better, they said.

"I'm really proud of where we're at, even from where we were 10 years ago," Hart said. "I'm really proud of how this place has grown into a really professional agency."

The top two sheriff's officials also credit the sheriff's employees and partnerships with the Kennewick and Richland police departments, and federal agencies, with helping the sheriff's office thrive and making Benton County a safe place to live.

Hart, who said he aspired for years to be sheriff until he saw what the job really was like and how political it was, said Taylor was able to make the transition from cop to politician very well and that really benefited the community.

Taylor said he campaigned on solving the over-crowding issues at the jail and is proud to create revenue for the county by contracting out extra bed space to other cities and establish the Benton County jail as the most efficiently-run jail in the state several years running.

With a long career filled with accomplishments, Taylor admitted he has one "ugly, ugly dark cloud" hanging over it: Jan. 14, 1982, when he fatally shot a suspect in a robbery-hostage situation.

"The incident really hurt and stayed with me for life," he said.

Taylor, who will continue to have a full peace officer commission, says he's not going to miss the early-morning calls about homicides, officer-involved shootings or officers being seriously injured.

"I've dealt with that so many times -- it's really tragic what some people do," Taylor said, noting that dealing with animals will "be a pleasant change."

He also is excited to be able to have more time to become more active in the Shriners fraternity, which he's been a part of for 13 years.

Both Hart and Taylor agree that the one thing they know they're going to miss is working with everyone at the sheriff's office.

Hart doesn't have any specific plans yet for retirement besides spending time with his family -- his wife Marsha retired from the sheriff's office in 2008 -- and going on a golf trip to Palm Springs with friends in a couple of weeks. He said he's not sure if he's the type of guy who can just stay home and not work, so he is also looking at some possible new job opportunities.

And, Hart said it's kind of fun to retire at the same time as his good friend and "now it's up to the new generation to take this on. The bar's been set very high."

But, he added, he has no doubt Capt. Steve Keane, a career lawman who also moved through the ranks of the sheriff's office, will do a great job as the county's new sheriff.

"He's a great person, he's very honest and has impeccable ethics. It's not about power. It's not about money," Hart said. "... His heart's in the right place."

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