Sometime this fall, in all likelihood, shots will ring out on a Kingston street, detectives will get a break on a big case or tumult will erupt outside a nightspot. Kingston Police Chief Gerald Keller will be in a tree stand stalking deer, secure in the knowledge that, for the first time in more than a decade, his prey will not be scared off by a cell phone ringing on urgent police business.
After 40 years in law enforcement capped by 13 as Kingston’s top cop, Keller, 61, is stepping down into what he hopes will be quiet retirement. During that time Keller went from chasing pot-smoking hippies and the city’s single prostitute in the ’70s to kicking in crackhouse doors in the ’80s and ’90s to leading a department struggling to address the stubborn, seemingly intractable problems of drugs, gangs and blight in 21st century Kingston.
Keller, who announced his retirement in January, spent his last day on the job doing some last-minute paperwork on Friday, Oct. 28, as he prepared to hand over the job to incoming chief Egidio Tinti. During a break, he discussed his career and the evolution of policing in the city over the past 40 years with the Kingston Times.
It was a career that began almost by accident. Back in 1969 and fresh out of Kingston High School, Keller, eager to fight in Vietnam, approached a Marine Corps recruiter … only to be talked out of enlisting.
“He said this war ain’t going to go on much longer and right now it’s a lost cause,” Keller recalled. “He told me to go to college, come back in four years and go in as an officer.”
Instead, Keller took advantage of a mid-1960s program to produce better-educated cops by paying tuition costs in exchange for a commitment to work in law enforcement (Keller would fulfill his desire for military service a decade later when he enlisted in the Army Reserve and spent the next 20 years serving part-time with an elite Special Forces unit on training missions in Europe and Latin America). In 1971, days after his graduation form Ulster County Community College, Keller donned the uniform of an Ulster County sheriff’s deputy. After a year spent policing the county roads and rounding up skinny-dipping hippies from Woodstock swimming holes, Keller signed on with the KPD to take advantage of the then-substantial $7,060 annual salary.
A different city
The Kingston of the ’70s, Keller recalled, was an industrial community where factories still churned out shirts, bricks and cement. Uptown, where Keller started out walking the beat, was a thriving commercial center packed with stores, bars and hotels. Equally important, Keller said, was what the city lacked — gangs, school violence and, excepting the aforementioned hippie pot smokers and a small-but-dedicated corps of heroin addicts, drugs. When violence did break out, it was usually late at night when bars packed with young revelers (the drinking age at the time was 18) let out onto the Uptown streets.