BRATTLEBORO >> After serving the Vermont State Police for 28 years, Ray Keefe has decided to retire and enjoy a new life beyond the badge.
"You know, some people say they got into their career because it was a calling. I always felt like this was it — this was what I needed to do," said Keefe.
For the past seven years, he was acknowledged as Captain Ray Keefe, D-Troop commander, who oversaw the Brattleboro, Rockingham and Royalton barracks.
The concept of "serve and protect" was one he learned at a young age and pursued throughout his lifetime.
Keefe grew up in Central Falls, R.I., where he worked in construction, pumping gas and also alongside his father, the proprietor of a funeral home. As a result, Keefe was exposed and surrounded by death since age 10. He thinks that helped his career in the long run.
"The first time I picked up a dead body, I was 15, so that ultimately led to this job because you know, we deal with a lot of dead people, specifically during my time in major crimes when I was investigating suicides, deaths and homicides," Keefe said. "That actually gave me an advantage because I was so comfortable to be around death and dead bodies."
The family business meant Keefe's upbringing differed from that of his classmates.
"In high school I'd see my friends and I'd be driving by in a hearse going to pick up a body, while they were going to play baseball," said Keefe.
But his goal has never been to sensationalize death, but rather to be a leader and protector.
His career aspiration came to him in high school when he read a New York Magazine article on a rape incident. The pictures and story moved and inspired him to stand against that cruelty and violence.
"If I saw a brutal rape or murder case, I wanted to be able to do something about those things," said Keefe.
He felt he could accomplish this through policing.
There was no family legacy of law enforcement in Keefe's family. It took many small steps, but Keefe said building his career was a "natural progression."
His first job related to law enforcement was as a beach patroller in Rhode Island during summers from the time he was 18 until he graduated from college. He attended Roger Williams University in Rhode Island, where he earned a bachelor's degree in administrative justice with a minor in legal studies.
When Keefe was fresh out of college, a friend planned to apply to the Vermont State Police and encouraged Keefe to apply as well. While his buddy didn't get a job as a trooper, Keefe did. He was 21.
From there, he entered the academy, where he endured training that was both physically and mentally demanding.
"If you're going to break, it will be then," said Keefe. "It's basically three weeks to see if you have the discipline and toughness to make it. It's physical, mental, them trying to trip you up, and some state police history."
His youth and rookie status made him feel unaccepted at first, but a few decent mentors — Lt. Mike LeClaire who helped on "bigger" cases involving child sexual assault and abuse, Kevin Anderson who was his field training officer, Bill Bedson who was one of his sergeants, and Glenn Cutting who was his former captain — helped him along, Keefe said.
He was six years into being a trooper when he was promoted to a supervisor position in Royalton. In search of a new assignment, he joined the detective division and investigated major crimes for six years.
He got back into uniform as a sergeant for a year, then was promoted to lieutenant and ran the Royalton barracks as the commander. Four years later, he was promoted to captain and ran the training division and worked out of headquarters for about three years. For the past seven years, Keefe has been the D-Troop commander.
"I've been very fortunate, I've had many promotions," said Keefe. "Captain is as high as I wanted to go. There's three majors and a colonel over me, so there's really only two more levels to go. And they work out of headquarters full time and I never wanted to leave the field."
His job as commander has entailed overseeing this quarter of the state, with an all-hazards approach. When Tropical Storm Irene hit, he was heavily in charge of trying to save people's lives.
His basic role as commander has been to "oversee the overseers," which he said many people want in this "climate" of law enforcement. Day to day, he would travel to different barracks to meet with other police chiefs and attend emergency management meetings.
In his position, he had a direct line to the governor's office, if needed. He was the liaison for Vermont Yankee when protests arose.
Keefe ran the dispatch center in Rockingham, which was recently consolidated with Rutland. That experience made him appreciate the many different positions in law enforcement.
"There's a job in law enforcement that people really need to understand and respect: The dispatchers have a tough job. They take a lot of mouth from people on the phone and they have to deal with the troopers and their egos, and then they're stuck in the middle," said Keefe.
Keefe said dispatchers can go from having a pleasant conversation to dealing with an emergency within seconds.
"They're interjected into things and I think it's even harder for them sometimes because we go to the scene, we see what's happening, but the dispatchers are sitting in that chair waiting. That is a tough job and I really think people need to treat them better and understand how difficult their job is," Keefe said.
As a major crimes investigator, he took the lead in murder, rape, kidnapping and armed robbery cases. Some experiences left disturbing memories.
"The murder cases I worked on, I'll clearly never forget them and feel like I did good," said Keefe.
Cases involving suicide, rape, child abuse and molestation were some of the most horrific investigations he conducted. But despite the traumatic experiences, he felt like he did some good in getting criminals away from their victims.
"I've felt the hugs from children who I have helped and I have felt the scorn from those who I went after to make that stop," he said. "But one weird part of this occupation is that I've had multiple awards and felt great about some of the things I've done. But all of those things I did were put in place because something terrible happened to someone else."
Before Keefe arrested an accused murderer, bank robber, kidnapper or rapist, someone was killed, robbed, kidnapped or raped. Keefe said it can be an odd feeling to have his accomplishments surround someone else's loss or traumatic experience.
"While my victories were great for me, I never lost track of the fact that it followed a bad event, and maybe that's why a lot of police officers get really negative because your victories are based upon something bad happening to someone else," said Keefe.
Through Keefe's 28 years of experience with the barracks, he feels he has taken away valuable lessons and has a vision of what should change regarding law enforcement.
He says he has been "disturbed" by some recent trends, such as police brutality against civilians. He feels police brutality brings "great discredit" to officers across the country.
He is also upset about a great distrust between blacks and police officers.
"I have great sympathy for that because when you don't trust your police anymore, that leads to a great feeling of insecurity. There are some countries I won't go to because I don't trust the police there. And I would hate to think that people feel that way in this country, but I know that they do," said Keefe.
In tackling this issue, Keefe believes every police officer in this country should wear a body camera, which should be funded through the federal government, because car cameras alone cannot capture every moment. Though car cameras capture audio too, Keefe said that's not enough.
"We're being scrutinized more than ever by defense lawyers and the public. And I think the public wants to see video now, they trust video and I'm not sure they trust what we say anymore," said Keefe.
In addition, he thinks every police officer should carry non-lethal weaponry such as Tasers.
"If someone is holding a knife and they're threatening us, they're fair game to be killed — let's just get that out there in the rules of engagement. But if someone is suicidal and they're holding a knife to themselves, if we can tase that person and take them down instead of shooting them, that's the preferred route here," said Keefe. "People that can be tased, should be tased."
Keefe said he thinks the public needs to be more involved in policing and have a say in the status of policing in their communities. He is in support of police oversight boards where citizens help guide officers.
"This should never be the 'police against the community,' the police are there to protect the community," said Keefe. "And I think in a lot of places it feels like them versus us and that is completely not what police work was meant to be."
In regards to drugs, Keefe said there needs to be more prevention program for opiates and heroin, but people also need to decide for themselves if it's the life they want to live. He also feels the state will come out of this "rock bottom" phase soon and that this drug trend is "cyclical."
Based on his years as a state trooper, Keefe said he agrees with Gov. Peter Shumlin that marijuana should be legalized.
"I don't want to see any of my troopers waste their time anymore chasing marijuana. I don't think the public supports it and I think it's become a waste of time and we need to accept that," said Keefe.
The state could gain money from legalization and it would help move it out of the black market.
"I think children will look at the legalization of marijuana the way we look at the prohibition of alcohol, I firmly believe that," said Keefe.
Last Friday, Feb. 19, Keefe served his last day in the barracks and retired. Though he's sad to leave some of his co-workers, he said the time is right.
"It was an option, I could stay five more years or leave at 50. I say, always leave on a high note. I feel healthy and young. Now is the time to go," said Keefe.
He said he is looking forward to spending time with his family, travelling and finding who he is outside of the job. Further, Keefe has been on call since he was a teenager working at the funeral home and is excited for that to come to an end.
"It's terrible, it takes away your feeling of being home and relaxed. It's taxing," said Keefe. "I will miss the people I work with and it will be hard for me to no longer be the guy behind the badge, but I'm excited to see what's next."
He hopes to keep healthy and not get "too lazy," maintain a positive attitude, and help people in a different capacity. He said he's always willing to give counsel, but acknowledges that people will not have access to him the way they use to.
"Vermont is a great place and it's a very low crime and safe place and we need to let people know it still is that. There are people who have problems, but there will always be people who have problems," said Keefe.
Maddi Shaw can be reached at 802-254-2311, ext. 275.