After graduating from Petal High School in 1986, Rusty Keyes began his career with intentions in sports medicine, working under a scholarship as a student athletic trainer for the University of Southern Mississippi football team.
But four years later, Keyes found his path leading in a somewhat different direction when he joined the Hattiesburg Police Department as a patrol officer – a move that would set him up in a veritable lifelong career in law enforcement, and eventually, as chief of the Southern Miss Police Department.
“When I started in law enforcement, early on in my career, I had an accident while on duty, and it severely injured my leg,” said Keyes, who was recently named Best Behind the Scenester in 2019 Best of the Pine Belt voting. “During my healing process, I was able to work for the detective division in the Hattiesburg Police Department, and found what I wanted to do with my career.”
Once Keyes was rehabilitated from his injury, he went back to patrol for approximately a year before joining the narcotics department. In 1994, he was promoted to HPD’s detective division, where he stayed until 2005, when he again joined the patrol division – this time as a patrol lieutenant.
“While I was a detective, I started working homicide cases, death investigations, violent crimes,” Keyes said. “So I knew that’s where I really wanted to spend a lot of my time, helping victims and families of violent crimes.”
That passion led to the University Police Department, where in 2006 Keyes came on board to start a cold case homicide unit, working with the Criminal Justice Department at the school. Keyes and the police crew also formed a Metro Crime Scene Unit at the department.
One of the more prominent cases Keyes worked on in the cold case homicide unit was that of Angela Freeman, a Petal woman who went missing in September 1993.
“There are several cases that are still open, and several cases that we were able to clear,” Keyes said. “Angela Freeman is a case that was assigned to the unit, and I have worked on that case for several years, and it was an honor to just do my part for that case.
“And there’s some cases over in Marion County, Perry County, Hattiesburg, Forrest County, and several that I’ve been able to consult on or investigate. So it’s just been a privilege for me to be able to put my abilities toward helping solve those crimes.”
In 2017, Keyes took over as assistant chief of the University Police Department, and in April he was named chief. Keyes, who takes over for retiring chief Bop Hopkins, officially assumes the position July 1.
“At first, I didn’t (see myself becoming chief),” Keyes said. “I had some goals at HPD to be chief of detectives there one day, but when I got out here and started working and moving up through the ranks, I started feeling that I needed to move in that direction.
“I talked to Chief Hopkins about that, and he began preparing me and mentoring me to apply for that position upon his retirement. When he announced his retirement, he really put some responsibility on me that helped me gain even more experience that I needed.”
As it turns out, the university has been the perfect spot for Keyes – he considers the place home, as he grew up in the area, went to school there, and his mother even worked in the school’s book store.
“I’ve always been associated with Southern Miss, and always been a fan of Southern Miss,” he said. “So to be able to come back here, and to be able to not just start that homicide unit but to work in the university police department and move up through ranks – it’s just been an honor to be able to do that at my alma mater.
“It’s a place that I love and I want to be a part of.”
As far as his tenure as chief, Keyes believes the department is in great shape after Hopkins’ stint, with the department being nationally accredited and keeping a low crime rate on campus. Now with 30 sworn police officers and 16 unarmed security officers dispersed between the Hattiesburg and Gulf Coast campus under his watch, Keyes has plans to continue Hopkins’ legacy, and hopes to increase the force’s manpower in the coming years.
“My philosophy of policing is very community-oriented,” he said. “Our success will depend on the cooperation that we have, and the support that we have, from the Southern Miss community and the Hattiesburg metro community as a whole.
“I have a philosophy that the police is the public and the public is the police – we all live here together, and we all shop and eat in the same places. I’ve got a job to do as a police officer, but I’m also a member of the public as well, so we look at this as our community too. We want to make it safe for our community members and for us. We’ve just got that philosophy of working with the public and making this whole community better and safer.”