Port’s senior cop caps 46-year career

Fresh out of high school, Mike Keller joined the department’s reserves, became an officer and worked his way up from downtown beat cop to captain

AFTER 42 YEARS as a Port Washington police officer, Captain Mike Keller, who grew up in the city, is retiring on Thursday, June 27. Photo by Sam Arendt
By 
KRISTYN HALBIG ZIEHM
Ozaukee Press staff

“I don’t know where the time went,” Port Washington Police Captain Mike Keller said as he leaned back comfortably in a chair in the conference room at the Police Station Monday. “It’s been 42 years.”

Forty-six if you count the four years he spent as a reserve police officer before that. 

Keller, the senior member of the department and the longest-tenured officer in the department’s history, is closing the door on that chapter of his life when he leaves at 4 p.m. Thursday, June 27.

“This is only the second job I ever left,” said Keller, 63.

The first job he left was at Joe Mueller’s gas station on Grand Avenue — now Beck’s Grand Avenue Mini Mart — where Keller did everything from fixing cars to pumping gas, checking the oil and cleaning the windshields.

He started that job while a student at Port Washington High School, before he graduated in 1973. He joined the police reserves after graduation at the urging of former officers Rich Maher and Fran Winnemuller.

“I was just out of high school and I wasn’t sure what I was going to do,” Keller recalled. “Riding around with the officers at night, it really piqued my interest.

“It was just something appealing. You help people out.”

But you couldn’t become a police officer until you were 21, and Keller wasn’t. The Police and Fire Commission allowed him to take the written test when he turned 18, but he had to wait to apply for the job.

On June 14, 1977, after he turned 21, Keller was hired as a police officer.

“Back then, the junior officer was the beat officer downtown,” Keller said. He walked the beat for years, getting to know the community and the people. 

Part of his job was directing traffic at the intersection of Main and Franklin streets on Friday nights, when business was so brisk there were traffic jams.

“Later, you would visit the store owners and people who were shopping downtown,” Keller said, and later in the night checked on the taverns.

“That was a good job,” he said. “You knew everyone on your beat. 

“Community policing has been a big word for years — that was the true meaning of community policing.”

On Sunday nights, the beat officer downtown collected the money from the parking meters and repaired the meters that weren’t working if they could be fixed on the street. Otherwise, they brought them into the shop to work on them.

Keller was promoted to sergeant on Dec. 1, 1982.

“(Former Chief) Ed Rudolph saw something in me, I guess, that he thought was worth cultivating,” Keller said.

He worked the night shifts — either 8 p.m. to 4 a.m. or midnight to 8 a.m. — for the first 17 years of his career, first as a patrol officer and then as the night shift supervisor.

When the position of captain was created, Keller became the department’s second in command on Sept. 13, 1993.

The department later split the duties of the job. On Jan. 1, 2012, Keller was named captain of administration and Mike Davel became captain of patrol. 

“It took a load off me,” Keller said. “I don’t know that you can do justice to either of them if you’re doing both.”

As the captain, Keller worked to computerize the department, then joined forces with Duane Willborn of the Ozaukee County Sheriff’s Department and former Saukville Police Chief Bill Meloy to create a local law enforcement network and shared-records system.

But one of his best known initiatives was the move to convert the department squad cars to propane fuel.

First approved when gas prices were skyrocketing, the measure has saved the department roughly half the money it would have spent on gas fuel, Keller said.

“When you have a fleet of vehicles on the road 24-7, that adds up,” he said. 

Keller has filled many roles in the department. He’s been the face of the department to the public, serving as its spokesman. 

He’s spearheaded work on the department’s accreditation, and served as the unofficial historian of the department, a role he jokes that he got because “I’m the old guy here.”

He also served as acting police chief from Sept. 20, 2004, until Aug. 29, 2005.

He actually served as acting chief twice, he said — once for a month when Rudolph retired for 30 days so he could collect retirement benefits while continuing to work.

If you ask Keller what he remembers most, he doesn’t bring up the infamous cases. It’s the people, both in the department and in the city, that he will both remember and miss the most, he said.

“Police work is a calling. I wanted to serve my hometown. Now, I’m dealing with the grandchildren of people I once knew.”

The best part of his job, Keller said, is that no two days were the same.

“You don’t know day-to-day what you’re going to run into,” he said. “You roll with the punches. You put out the fires. You solve problems, big and small. You never get bored.”

The highlight of his career, he said, was being selected to attend the FBI National Academy for law enforcement executives at Quantico in 1998. 

“Only about one-half of one percent of law enforcement officers ever get the opportunity to attend,” he said, noting he was on the waiting list for six or seven years before being selected for the 193rd session. “They train about 250 law enforcement executives from around the world at each session.”

He’s still on the board for the state chapter of the National Academy. 

Ask Keller why he decided to retire now, and he will cite a quote attributed to Confucius — “We all have two lives. The second one begins when we realize we only have one.”

“That really resonated with me,” Keller said. “I’m young enough and I’d rather go out on the top of my game.”

He’s not sure what lies ahead — Keller said he’s already been offered a couple jobs but doesn’t know if he’s ready to take any of them.

“I may just want to be retired,” he said.

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Wisconsin’s largest paid circulation community weekly newspaper. Serving Port Washington, Saukville, Grafton, Fredonia, Belgium, as well as Ozaukee County government. Locally owned and printed in Port Washington, Wisconsin.

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