Phil Keith has served as the Director of the Office of Community Oriented Policing Services (COPS) at the U.S. Department of Justice since April 2018. He began his law enforcement career with the Knoxville, TN Police Department in 1970, and served as the Knoxville police chief from 1988 to 2004. Director Keith spoke with PERF Executive Director Chuck Wexler about his policing career and his time leading the COPS Office.

Director Keith also issued a “Fond Farewell” message earlier this month, and the COPS Office released a report highlighting its achievements over the last 25 years.

Chuck Wexler: Did you grow up in Knoxville?

Director Keith: Actually I’m a Nashville native, but my family moved to Knoxville when I was in grammar school. So I did grow up in Knoxville.

Wexler: Did you always want to go into policing?

Director Keith: I had gone to Arizona Western to play football, and I came back home after a couple knee surgeries. I was going to the University of Tennessee, and I was looking for a job where I could go to school during the daytime and work in the evening. A friend who was a police officer told me that if I told the department I wanted to work all afternoon or night shifts, they’d take me up on it. That’s how I got involved in it.

I had some law enforcement threads in my family, but I didn’t know how many until sometime later.  I had an uncle who was a captain with the Metropolitan Nashville Police Department, a cousin who was the Deputy Director of the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation, and a great uncle who was Chief of Detectives in St. Louis, Missouri.

Wexler: How did things change in the Knoxville Police Department during your time there?

Director Keith:  First, I want to mention that I was fortunate to have chiefs who were mentors to me. After I got my rookie years behind me, I got an opportunity to go to the FBI National Academy. The senior officer who was slated to go became ill. I was working as an executive officer for the chief of police at the time, and he walked in and asked if I wanted to go to the FBI National Academy. The next thing I know, the chief wants to know if I want to go to Columbia, Maryland to do a business internship. So things started happening and I had so much help along the way.

I remember I met Chief Joe McNamara when I was a sergeant. I don’t know why the chief of police in San Jose would take a liking to a sergeant from Tennessee, but he did, and he helped me in so many ways.

Policing was changing dramatically back then. We had what I call the dark ages, when a lot of things were going on in policing that shouldn’t have been. We weren’t hiring the best people. We were making mistakes. I’m a product of the Johnson Commission, with minimum standards for policing and other reforms taking hold.  Later on, we hosted the World’s Fair in 1982, and I was responsible for all the operational planning for that event, which included things like working in the command post at the Lake Placid Olympics in 1980. Knoxville had a good university base and a lot of education within the department. We had had some bumps in the road, but I was blessed to be picked as chief in 1988.

I was a really young chief, at 38 years old, and I knew that I would be challenged on a number of fronts, but I got help from former Knoxville chiefs, other police chiefs, and friends from the National Academy and other conferences.  Because I was young, I had a lot of energy to work on progressive changes that would reflect well in the community. And I have never lost sight that our fundamental responsibility is public safety, and crime is part of that. I got busy focusing on best practices for addressing crime, and what really moved the needle. I dissected everything from training to career development to policies.

Wexler: It’s very unusual for police chiefs to stay in their positions for 17 years. What advice would you give others about being a successful chief?

Director Keith: I think first and foremost, the job requires you to stay well-grounded. That means listening to what’s going on in the business, not being afraid to reach out, and keeping yourself involved with other leaders.

I knew who my constituents were. I had a responsibility to my mayor and city council, and I had a responsibility to the troops. And we have a huge responsibility to the citizens. I think being well-grounded in those three areas was one of the things that helped me.

I think that one failure point for chiefs is that they think that once they reach the level of chief, they don’t have time to do a deep dive into the subject matter of the issues at hand. But if you’re going to lead from the front, you really have to be knowledgeable about where to take an organization.

Wexler: What are some of the things you’re most proud of from your tenure as Director of the COPS Office?

Director Keith:  I had a close personal relationship with Attorney General Sessions and a great relationship with Attorney General Barr. I knew I had a responsibility to them. I knew I also had a responsibility to the personnel in the COPS Office. I had a responsibility to the field. And I had a responsibility to Congress. Those were my constituent groups.

To be frank, when I arrived at the COPS Office, the outreach to the field seemed restricted or very targeted, rather than general. I wanted sheriffs, chiefs, everyone to be able to talk to us. I didn’t want it to be a limited audience.

Wexler: I was very impressed when you visited our offices at PERF soon after you became COPS Director, and I know you visited other organizations as well. That outreach is important to you, isn’t it?

Director Keith:  Extremely important. I was met with surprise a lot of times. When I visited the National Sheriffs’ Association, they said, “We’ve never had a COPS Director at our office.” But I think it’s proven to be beneficial to the COPS Office. I think the stakeholder groups have some appreciation for what we were trying to do.

Wexler: What subjects are you proud of taking on during your tenure?

Director Keith: I wanted to listen to the field first, to hear what chiefs and sheriffs were interested in. By listening, I identified a number of areas for study, such as drones, which was a discussion you and I had early on. Now we see the important role that drones play in our profession.

Facial recognition is another issue where we know it’s not a perfect technology, but we see where it’s being applied very appropriately and responsibly.

Officer safety and wellness is really close to me, because of my personal experiences. That was a priority of mine.  And the forum we held on recruitment and retention was incredible.

And I looked at our training and technical assistance delivery. I’ve been around the D.C. environment for a long time. I’ve seen a lot of training and technical assistance programs rise and fall with funding. A program that’s driven by the field, like the one we have now with CRI-TAC, is focused on the needs of state, local, and tribal law enforcement, not what we want to tell them.

And there’s COPS funding. When I got there, COPS funding in the President’s budget was going to be $99 million. We were essentially getting ready to go out of business. And now our funding is back up to almost $400 million this year with the appropriation we just received.

Wexler: Did the skills you learned as a police chief help you as COPS Director?

Director Keith: Oh, absolutely.  Going back to how Joe McNamara took a sergeant from Tennessee under his wing and coached him, he was really open about that leadership style. It’s one thing to read something or attend a class, but it’s another thing to ingrain lessons into your framework for thinking. And I was so blessed to have conversations with Colin Powell and other great leaders who helped me shape my leadership approach and grow.

But I didn’t change my model of operation when I came to the COPS Office. It was still important for me to identify who my constituent groups were and have a plan for communicating with them regularly. I’m not bashful about sending people letters or cards and thanking them.  Chuck, I learned that to some degree from you.  

Wexler: It’s a dying skill, but people really appreciate personal letters, don’t they?

Director Keith: Yes, it was something I got from my mother, who was a prolific note writer. She told me people hang onto those. It shows sincerity on the part of the writer to reach out to people. When I was being considered to serve as the Chair of the President’s Commission on Law Enforcement, they said, “Phil, you have a great outreach effort.”

Wexler: What’s next for you?

Director Keith: One of my first loves is training development, so I’m sure I’ll do some of that. I’m at a point in my life where I think giving back doesn’t stop when you leave official positions. I think you can continue to give back. And I want to work with law enforcement until I just run out of energy.  So I’m keeping the door open.

But the first thing I’m going to do is take a little time to share with my family and catch up on some things. So I’ll do that first, but I don’t think I’ll be real distant going forward.


The PERF Critical Issues Report is part of the Critical Issues in Policing project, supported by the Motorola Solutions Foundation.


PERF also is grateful to the Howard G. Buffett Foundation for supporting this work.