He spent more than three decades tackling crime, rising to the top of his field and taking on one of the toughest beats in the city. But police Chief Keith McCaskill's surprise announcement Friday that he'd hand in his badge as top cop after five years didn't focus on the darkness that marks much of life on the job.

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He spent more than three decades tackling crime, rising to the top of his field and taking on one of the toughest beats in the city. But police Chief Keith McCaskill's surprise announcement Friday that he'd hand in his badge as top cop after five years didn't focus on the darkness that marks much of life on the job.

Instead McCaskill talked about the input from his partner Grace, the woman he has been married to for almost a quarter century.

Police Chief Keith McCaskill.

MIKE DEAL / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS

Police Chief Keith McCaskill.

"My initial thought when I first became chief was to stay five years, that's still our thought. My wife has directed me that five years is enough," McCaskill said. "The decision is the right move for us."

Grace McCaskill nodded with approval about the announcement that came as her husband stood at the microphone at the police headquarters at the Public Safety Building.

"I'm feeling extremely happy," said Grace, adding she was her husband's "biggest fan."

"I don't know if he'll stay retired. I'm hoping, but we'll see what happens."

Grace described her husband as someone who "does the right thing whether somebody's watching or not" and "doesn't look for accolades."

But the chief's departure doesn't mean there won't be McCaskills still walking the beat as the couple has two children who are Winnipeg Police Service officers.

McCaskill plans to remain in his role until Dec. 9, 2012, the last day of his contract

Under his watch, which began in December 2007, the WPS got its first helicopter, as well as a cadet program and a heavily armed tactical support unit.

McCaskill said he notified Mayor Sam Katz earlier this week that he wanted to leave the role, in order for there to be enough time to select the next police chief.

In his career, McCaskill played key roles in the development of the arson strike force, as well as working for the province as the co-ordinator of aboriginal and municipal law enforcement.

He said the highlight of his career has been "dealing with people, not only within the service but in the community as well."

Katz said he has a good personal relationship with McCaskill and a tremendous amount of respect for the chief.

The mayor said he briefly considered trying to convince McCaskill to remain, but knew the chief and his wife Grace love to travel and enjoy life.

"If I thought I could convince the chief to stay (past Dec. 9), I would have tried," Katz told reporters.

The mayor praised McCaskill for repairing strained relationships between the WPS and the community at large.

McCaskill made a point of making time for inner-city residents and the aboriginal community, Katz added.

"He listened to everybody, which is something important. He would listen to the chair. He would listen to me. He would listen to the public at large. He attended community gatherings.

"That's something that has to be done," Katz said.

On the policy side, the mayor said, McCaskill can be credited for bringing in a crime-reduction strategy. Katz shrugged off the suggestion the chief's legacy has been blemished by Winnipeg's continuing struggles with high homicide rates and violent crime.

"We don't have to play games. We have a crime problem in this city," said Katz, noting that former chief Jack Ewatski and former mayor Glen Murray wrestled with safety issues as well.

Manitoba Attorney General Andrew Swan said he'll be sorry to see McCaskill go.

Swan said he's had a good relationship with the chief. The two have dealt professionally with one another since McCaskill worked for the Justice Department and Swan was a legislative assistant. "I think Keith's biggest strength is that he is a good communicator," Swan said.

"And I know that he's been quite prepared to leave the Public Safety Building behind and come out into the communities and talk to people about policing. He's been very open about finding ways that the police can better build relationships with Winnipeggers. And I think he's done a good job on that front," Swan said.

Mike Sutherland, Winnipeg Police Association president, said he was a little surprised by the chief's announcement Friday.

"Everyone needs to make the decisions that work for their lives, and certainly, I have the utmost respect for the chief. I wish him very well in whatever future endeavour he'll be undertaking, or if he's just going to spend some more time with family. But Keith -- we didn't see eye-to-eye on every issue -- but Keith was always a gentleman, always very diplomatic," said Sutherland.

The police service has two deputy chiefs and four superintendents under his command. Both deputy chiefs, Shelley Hart and Art Stannard, were promoted during McCaskill's leadership.

gabrielle.giroday@freepress.mb.ca

-- with files from Bartley Kives and Larry Kusch

Life behind the badge

Free Press reporter Gabrielle Giroday asked Chief Keith McCaskill about some of the most memorable moments of his career.

 

A momentous arrest

In 2002, McCaskill was incident commander when police nabbed Michael Syrnyk, known as the Yuletide Bandit.

The arrest involved a standoff, a police shooting and a hostage-taking -- and led to a 23-year sentence for Syrnyk, who admitted to more than two dozen robberies.

"It ended a term of criminal activity," said McCaskill. "This person was very violent."

 

As a father

McCaskill has a son and daughter who are WPS officers.

"I was very proud obviously of both of them to do what they did. That's not an easy task to go through that whole training. And it's not easy to get selected."

 

On his biggest disappointment

"In any person's life... there's disappointments, but right at this point, I can't think of any," he said.

"I really believe that you're in charge of your own happiness."

 

A case he'll remember forever

McCaskill was involved in an international task force investigating shootings of abortion doctors in the U.S. and Canada, and was the spokesman for the Canadian police agencies.

In 2001, James Charles Kopp was nabbed in France. McCaskill said the case was "very complex," and meant working closely with police on both sides of the border.

"It was one where we had nine different police agencies across Canada and the United States," he said. "It was very interesting because that was unheard of at the time, way back in 1997, basically, when it started off, an inter-agency investigation involving five in Canada and four in the United States."

 

Best advice for the next chief?

"I think that what you have to do is... be able to have the strong skills to develop strong relationships," he said. "It doesn't matter what your goal (is) at the end of the day, if you can't deal with people, you're not going to be successful, so I would suggest that you have to keep an open mind, you have to get to know people, both in the organization and out, and that'll help you with your goals. If you don't have that -- if you come in like a bull in a china shop -- and say 'This is what we're going to do' without considering that, you're not going to win."