Casper’s new police chief was waiting for a helicopter in the Colorado wilderness when an idea blossomed that would take him across the country and the world.
Keith McPheeters was a Farmington, New Mexico, SWAT team sergeant at the time, and was part of a group that was searching for a suspected cop killer. While waiting for the helicopter, he and his fellow officers decided to honor the killer’s victim. They later climbed Denali — the highest point in the United States — in memory of Cortez, Colorado police officer Dale Claxton.
Since then, he’s summited peaks in every state except for Hawaii.
Now, McPheeters is looking forward to climbing Cloud Peak when the weather warms up. He was named Casper’s chief of police in early December.
Just like a mountaineering expedition, he faces some challenges. McPheeters, who rose to deputy chief in Farmington, takes over a department that experienced a tumultuous year. Morale issues became public in April and the previous chief was dismissed a month later. Since then, the department oversaw a huge influx of visitors during the eclipse and then launched an ambitious community outreach effort this fall.
“The police department has been in a period of angst,” McPheeters said. “Not knowing who the new leader was and what direction he or she would take the department.”
McPheeters doesn’t plan on determining that direction alone. He is meeting one-on-one with sworn officers and employees to help define goals for the department.
“I think that every man and woman of the department ought to have some say in it,” he said.
Teamwork on Denali
Leading teams into the mountains has taught McPheeters about teamwork, the chief said.
The group’s first attempt at Denali came up short. He said he was responsible for that failed attempt at the summit by relying too heavily on his own efforts. The experience made McPheeters take an introspective look at his leadership style and move to a more team-focused approach.
The team’s second attempt at the summit, in 2001, was a “textbook success,” he said.
Since 1998, McPheeters has summited the highest peak in every continental state, as well as on four continents. All of those summits have been completed in honor of police officers that died in the line of duty.
He’s completed those summits as a member of Cops on Top, a nonprofit he founded that sends climbers to mountain peaks across the world in memory of fallen officers.
Stu Frink, a retired Washington State Patrol officer and seasoned mountaineer, contacted McPheeters in 1999 after reading about the organization in a periodical for family members of slain officers. Frink’s brother was killed while working for the patrol in 1993. The two men joined two other officers to summit Grand Teton in September of that year.
The two men “have pretty much done something every single year” since, Frink said.
McPheeters’ mountaineering experience overlaps well with police work, according to Frink. Whether commanding police officers or holding a rope tethering a climber to the mountain, teamwork, trust and a goal-oriented attitude are essential.
“Guys like Keith,” Frink said, “I definitely trust them with the end of the rope.”
The cost of crime
On Tuesday, the chief spoke more extensively on the subject of teamwork, saying he plans to work with local organizations to achieve two goals for Casper: improve citizens’ quality of life and reduce their cost of living.
The police department can help on both fronts, McPheeters said.
“Casper is already exceptionally safe,” according to the chief. However, the police department will work to further drop the crime rate and make Casper a safer town.
McPheeters said he is still identifying areas for improvement, but the department will begin by targeting “low hanging fruit” such as auto burglaries. Those burglaries would be drastically reduced if citizens locked their cars more regularly, he said. The police department will aim to educate the public on the issue to change public habits.
As crime drops, insurers will spend less repairing and replacing crime-related damage. That will lower the cost of car, life and homeowner’s insurance as well as prices at local stores, McPheeters said.
McPheeters said Wednesday that he would be happy to meet with anyone that has hopes or concerns for the department. He’ll be starting with school officials and social service providers.
The department will also be rolling out recommendations related to an outside review of the police department that was completed this fall, he said. The department’s command staff met this week and went through the recommendations, prioritizing them.
McPheeters declined to say what recommendations were at the top of the department’s list, but pointed out that some of them had already been implemented.
Two officers were recently promoted to sergeant, and a sergeant to lieutenant, filling gaps in the command structure as recommended by the review team.
Meanwhile, a police initiative called “Our Community” that focuses on connecting officers with citizens was rolled out earlier this fall. That initiative also includes recommendations spelled out in the independent review, like making a complaint form available on the department’s website.
McPheeters plans to continue the community-oriented approach, he said. He called for citizens to “actively engage” the police department.
Regional and family ties
The chief grew up in Rexburg, Idaho — an hour and a half west of the Wyoming border — and has never lived outside of the Mountain West.
Tonya, the chief’s wife of 31 years, came to Casper for the announcement of her husband as chief. She is back in New Mexico now, working as a human resources director, while their son finishes his final year of high school.
The couple’s three daughters live in Texas and Utah.
McPheeters’s family will join him in Casper after the summer, he said. He hopes to draw a hunting tag that would allow him to hunt bighorn sheep in the fall.
Until then, Cloud Peak is waiting.