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Former SMPD Chief James Keane Dies Unexpectedly

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By Niki Cervantes
Staff Writer

February 23, 2016 -- James F. Keane, who served as chief of the Santa Monica Police Department from 1979 until his retirement in 1991, died unexpectedly Friday during an afternoon outing, department officials announced Monday.

Santa Monica Police Chief James Keane 1979 to 1991
Police Chief James Keane. Photo curtesey City of Santa Monica

The SMPD did not say what caused Keane’s death, or how old he was at the time of his death, although he was 59 when he retired from his tenure as the City’s 14th Police Chief. He was a longtime Santa Monica resident.

“He was a great guy,” said former Santa Monica City Council Member Bob Holbrook, who joined the Council in 1990 and remembered being struck by how highly regarded Keane was by his department, law enforcement in general and the community. “He was well regarded.”

Keane joined the department in 1957, said Sgt. Rudy Camarena, a police spokesman.

Keane joked about how he “chugged up the California Incline in a ’46 Chevy”, with a ten dollar bill in his pocket and “not much future,” the Los Angeles Times wrote in a 1991 article about Keane’s retirement, an occasion which generated a lot of fanfare and accolades about his record on the rights of women, the homeless and others. He also neither carried nor owned a gun, the Times said.

Holbrook, who attended Keane’s farewell retirement dinner, said he particularly remembered a story told there by one of the retired chief’s colleagues: The man had been instructed by Keane to go into the chief’s office desk to retrieve a document.

He pulled open the desk drawer and found it full of tickets that had been received by law enforcement officers.

“Every one of them had been paid by the chief, out of his own pocket,” Holbrook said as he recalled the story. “He had all the receipts. That was the kind of man he was. He never even said a thing about it.”

Although known for his low-key manner and his attempts to avoid the limelight, Keane generated national headlines in the mid-1980s. One dispute started in 1985 when he used City funds to buy a one-way airplane ticket to Miami for a repeat sex offender to get him off Santa Monica’s streets.

The ticket set off a highly publicized tiff between Santa Monica and Miami. Keane said his action was a retaliation against a Florida judge who three years earlier ordered a prostitute, arrested 47 times, to either go to prison or accept a one-way ticket to California.

The prostitute took the trip and quickly ended up in a Santa Monica courtroom, setting off the dispute.

Keane also became a hot topic during that era for his refusal to run Santa Monica's burgeoning homeless population out of town, despite calls for him to do so by angry residents and demands by the Chamber of Commerce for citizen arrests of panhandlers.

The City’s homeless problem has stabilized since then, but even at the time of his retirement, Keane said it was a big enough issue for some people to think his departure was related. But that wasn’t true, he said.

"Some people are glad I'm going because of the homeless problem," Keane told The Times. "They think there's a magic solution."

Keane, a native of Massachusetts, moved from Seattle to Santa Monica in 1955 after leaving the U.S. Air Force. After a short stint working in a stockroom at Sears, Keane joined the Santa Monica police force in 1957. He earned both a bachelor's and master's degree during his time in the ranks.

Keane is survived by his wife, Elizabeth, his daughters Lisa, Karen and Kathleen (a retired SMPD lieutenant) and grandchildren Devin and Maya. Information regarding memorial services is still being finalized.

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