Answering the Call
Alumnus Climbs the Ranks to Become South Carolina’s Top Cop
He’s smart, he’s confident and he’s passionate about his profession.
Growing up in the small town of Barnwell, South Carolina, Mark Keel (’77) discovered at a very young age what he wanted to do for the rest of his life. It seems he was destined to follow in the footsteps of two uncles who were police officers. Back then, he says, it was not uncommon for them to allow him to ride in their police cars.
“I got it in my blood, and knew from the time I was 8- or 9-years-old that I wanted to be a police officer, and I never wavered from that goal,” says Keel, who graduated from Georgia Southern University with a degree in criminal justice.
When he left Statesboro, Keel had another goal in mind – to one day become chief of the South Carolina Law Enforcement Division (SLED). It is the agency that local police departments and sheriff’s offices around the state call on for assistance with criminal investigations, forensic services, background screenings and a vast array of other services.
Today, Keel is living his dream as chief of SLED. The state’s governor, Nikki Haley, put him in charge of SLED four years ago, and he has been running it ever since. From his office in Columbia, he oversees an agency with 650-plus employees and a budget of more than $30 million. He considers law enforcement the greatest profession there is and one that he says, “is never boring. You never know what’s going to happen from one day to the next.”
It is clear that this past year has been especially challenging for Keel’s agency and law enforcement around the state. They were confronted with several difficult and high-profile cases, including the shooting deaths of nine people at the historic Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, and the fatal shooting of Walter Scott, an unarmed man, by a North Charleston police officer. Following the controversial deaths of two men in encounters with police in Baltimore and in Ferguson, Missouri, violent protests erupted; however, that didn’t happen in South Carolina.
“If you look at those type cases,” the chief says, “I have been so proud of South Carolina, that we have not been a Ferguson, that we have not been a Baltimore, and it’s because of the relationships that we have in our communities and with our community leaders, and the fact that those relationships were in place prior to the crisis. I can tell you if those relationships are not in place … you’re going to have what you have in these other communities.”
The veteran law enforcement leader says the way everyone came together after the Emanuel Church shooting last June is a perfect example of what it means when police build partnerships with each other and with their citizens. “We got down there that night and we worked as a team,” he notes. “Nobody was worried about who got credit for anything and that is the way it is supposed to work. We cannot do our job without community support. People want to be able to live, and go to work, and go to school and go to church, and do it in a safe environment. If we are not providing them with the opportunity to do all of that, then we are not doing our job. It is as simple as that.”
Keel, who has trained as a pilot and hostage negotiator, has spent 34 of his 39 years in law enforcement at SLED. While Georgia Southern gave him his start, he credits his law degree from the University of South Carolina for helping him climb up the ranks. “It opened doors for me and I advise young people all the time about getting an education,” he says. “It doesn’t much matter what you get a degree in, but get that education, and if possible, get an advanced degree because it will open doors for you that otherwise wouldn’t open.”
His job as the chief of SLED keeps his schedule jam-packed, but the alumnus keeps up with his alma mater and its athletics programs by reading Georgia Southern magazine and by talking football with a number of Eagle graduates on his staff. He says law enforcement is a job that really consumes you, but he wouldn’t have it any other way.
“People don’t get into this profession for money,’ he notes. “I came to work here in 1979 and I was making just over $12,000 a year and I thought I was rich. You have to love what you do to get into law enforcement. You have to love getting called away at the most inopportune times. I have two boys, and I can’t tell you how many events I missed or how many ball games that I went to and was called away from, but that’s what law enforcement is. It’s not just a profession, it’s a calling.”
While he encourages young people to enter law enforcement, he worries about the interpersonal skills of young adults who grew up using cell phones and the Internet with texting and email messages their main forms of communication.
“When people are upset, when communities are upset, our officers have to be able talk to calm things down and de-escalate the situation,” Keel explains. “When we are in the street answering 911 calls for criminal domestic violence, young officers have to be able to talk. They can’t send a text message or an email to that family that’s fussing and cussing.”
SLED’S chief says today’s environment for police is unlike any environment he has experienced throughout his career. “With the advent of social media everything that everybody does is under a tremendous amount of scrutiny and law enforcement is no exception,” he says. “I worry about being able to hire quality young people and bring them into a profession that is under such scrutiny.”
Although he has decades of experience in law enforcement, Keel never considered leaving South Carolina for a job with a federal agency. “Everyone always asks me, ‘Chief, why didn’t you go work with the FBI?’ I love South Carolina and it is my home. I never had the desire to have the federal government tell me to pack my bags and go to Miami, or to New York, or South Dakota or wherever.”
In his spare time, Keel spends time with wife Jeri and their two sons. He also loves to hunt and fish. Now that he has reached the top of his agency, he doesn’t plan to retire any time soon. Instead, he is considering emulating his 84-year-old father, a State Farm agent in their hometown of Barnwell.
“You know, everyone always asks my dad, ‘When are you going to retire?’
And he says, ‘I read the Bible cover to cover two or three times and the word retirement isn’t mentioned anywhere in it.’ So, how can I retire? As long as I feel like I am contributing and making a difference I want to work, and I can’t think of anything that I’d rather do than be where I am right now.” — Sandra Bennett
Georgia Southern Adopts Body Cameras for Police Force
High-profile police incidents around the country have resulted in an increased demand for officers to be equipped with body cameras and Georgia Southern’s Police Department has joined the growing number of police departments on college and university campuses that are using video technology during routine and critical calls for service. The University’s Office of Public Safety is the first public safety force in Bulloch County to incorporate body cameras and in-car recording systems into the daily work of its officers. As part of the program, each of the Police Department’s 34 patrol officers are equipped with body cameras and video equipment has been installed in four marked patrol cars.
“The addition of in-car and body camera equipment is something our department has been working toward for some time,” said Laura McCullough, interim chief of police of the Georgia Southern Office of Public Safety. “We recognized a couple of years ago the advantages of having video cameras for both the benefit of the community and law enforcement officers. With current events and the social climate as it is today, it is even more important that we do all we can to continue to be as open and transparent as possible.”
South Carolina Law Enforcement Division Chief Mark Keel, who is chairing a council in his state “tasked with writing the guidelines for police body-worn cameras,” says the cameras are a good idea. “Incidents involving law enforcement may require an officer to make split-second decisions that could have life-changing results,” he said. “Body cameras offer another tool for law enforcement to give a perspective of an encounter as the officer sees it as well as providing more accountability for that officer’s actions.” — Sandra Bennett
EXCLUSIVE ONLINE CONTENT
Meet Alumnus Mark Keel – South Carolina’s Top Cop
Comments are closed.