Sheriff Rick Scott calls him “a cop’s cop.”
Over his career with the Grays Harbor County Sheriff’s Office, Keith Fouts just about did it all. He started out as a patrol deputy in 1989, became an advocate of modern K-9 training standards, served in specialty units like the dive team and Special Response Team before retiring in June as a sergeant, supervisor of the Grays Harbor County Drug Task Force.
“I was one of the lucky officers that was able to come up through the ranks and I got to do some really neat things,” Fouts said.
“Very charismatic, natural born leader,” Undersheriff Dave Pimentel said of Fouts. “Just the kind of guy that you can count on, whether it’s in your professional or personal life, he’ll be there for you.”
For his distinguished career and exceptional dedication to law enforcement, Fouts has earned The Daily World’s 2013 Police Officer of the Year award. The award is presented each year in honor of Hoquiam Police Officer Donald Burke, who was shot and killed by bank robbers while on duty in 1980.
The award, typically issued in the spring to reflect accomplishments from the previous year, is being given this year before we turn the calendar to another year.
Fouts said he was humbled by the award.
“My brothers and sisters out there, whether they’re wearing a badge or a headset, hopefully I did them OK in my 24 years,” he said.
Fouts joined the department in 1989, after a professor convinced him to try law and justice course work.
In 1992, he made the leap from patrol to K-9 handler. Then chief criminal deputy, Scott recommended Fouts as a handler because of his and his wife Peggy’s love for animals.
“Tor and I became quite bonded,” Peggy Fouts said of her husband’s partner. When Keith Fouts was on graveyard shift, feeding Tor was added to her list of chores around their Wishkah Valley farm.
“He could tell Tor to take anybody down or bite anybody except for me, because I fed him,” she said with a laugh.
A former K-9 handler himself, Scott said the impacts of Fouts’ work are still felt statewide.
“He turned out to be one of the best K-9 handlers that our department has ever seen, and one of the best in the state,” he said.
Fouts worked with the Washington State Police Canine Association on accreditation standards, helping handlers statewide “troubleshoot their problems,” he explained.
“Back when I was a K-9 handler in the ’80s, what you trained your dog to do and the level of competency you had as a team was really inconsistent,” Scott said, and Fouts’ work helped change that.
The core value of obedience and the basic skills are much the same now as when he started, Fouts said.
“Dogs are just amazing creatures. I happened to be lucky enough to have one that was just keyed in on everything. I just had to follow him,” he said.
Fouts earned the Meritorious Service Award for a September 1996 call where he and Tor chased down a domestic violence suspect in the North Beach area armed with a knife, then subdued him without any injuries.
In 1998, Fouts was promoted to patrol sergeant and patrol supervisor in addition to his work as a handler.
From 1992 to 2000 when Tor retired, the team had more than 120 capture arrests and an exceptionally high rate of success relative to how many times the dog was deployed, Scott said.
“Tor was an exceptionally good dog, but a good dog handler can make a good dog great and an average dog good. A poor dog handler can do just the opposite,” he said. “That leash is an umbilical cord. The dog really is a reflection of the handler’s attitude.”
Drug Task Force
If there’s a law enforcement role that’s the opposite of K-9 work, it may be the Drug Task Force.
“The detectives that are coming in there, they’re not looking for the hot pop, they’re not looking to take down this house, they’re looking to take down this organization,” Fouts said. “A K-9 officer, you’re just chasing tail — you get a call, you put your dog on them and it’s a hunt.”
Fouts was promoted to supervisor of the task force in 2004.
“There’s a huge learning curve, things are always changing. (Supervisors) rely on their detectives to bring them up to speed,” he said.
“I can tell you that I know a lot of guys who are excellent law enforcement officers, who were excellent detectives … who just hated working in that environment, because it is so spontaneous,” Scott said of the task force.
“Everything is based on Pacific Doper Time, which is about four hours before or four hours after when you planned to do it. You don’t know exactly when things are going to go off,” he continued. “All of a sudden what you thought was going to happen in Elma is now going to happen in Tacoma. Not only is it not going to be in your jurisdiction, it’s going to be two jurisdictions away, so that’s where you’ve got to know people and get people on the phone.”
The key, Fouts said, is staying in contact with other agencies and task force supervisors.
“We play the same game that the dopers play — communication. They’re always talking amongst themselves, we’re always talking amongst ourselves,” he said.
“He took to it like a duck to water, built relationships with all the other task forces throughout the state, but even more importantly, he developed an extremely good relationship with the Drug Enforcement Administration. That opened a lot of doors, some of them financial, to assist us in major drug investigations here and up and down the West Coast,” Scott said.
Peggy Fouts said although he wasn’t on the street when he was running the task force, it could actually be more stressful for her because task force members aren’t always in constant contact with dispatchers and other officers. She is the director of Grays Harbor E911.
“He’d call me and all of a sudden he was heading to California tracking somebody, tracking a car, heading to Oregon, heading to Eastern Washington, whereas when you’re working a shift you’re just in Grays Harbor County,” Peggy Fouts said.
During Fouts’ tenure, the task force was involved in 915 investigations, 612 arrests, the seizure of nearly $3.8 million in assets and $46.1 million in drugs.
An integral part of a successful law enforcement agency is the ability to stick together as a team, and Fouts was at the heart of that for the Sheriff’s Office.
“You’re as close to those guys as you are your own family, and in some ways closer,” Scott said.
Fouts served as part of a critical incident management team that helped officers who had been involved in a traumatic event.
“He is somebody who has that ability to do that and not impose and not overstep some personal boundary there. People felt comfortable with him in that role,” Scott said. “It’s just not my comfort zone, but Keith is perfectly at home with it.”
Like any family, though, it’s not all serious. Scott and Pimentel recall Fouts was often just as central in departmental jokes and pranks.
“He was one of the biggest practical jokers. It was always a competition with him and a lot of us to see who could pull the best joke on who,” Scott said.
One joke seems to be living on beyond Fouts’ retirement. On Veterans Day, law enforcement officers from most of Grays Harbor County and some from the Drug Enforcement Administration and Federal Bureau of Investigation send text messages to thank military veterans and to jab at Fouts, who isn’t a veteran.
“We’ve gone to great lengths to embellish the story. He’s not a very tall guy, so we’ve embellished the story to the point where the Army wouldn’t take him because he didn’t meet the height requirement,” Pimentel said.
Fouts is far from the only non-veteran with the Sheriff’s Office.
“The whole purpose of it is to razz Keith,” Pimentel said with a laugh. “It’s become a tradition. Keith can dish it out with the best of them, but he can take it with the best of them, too.”
Fouts, for his part, demured.
“I’ve never been a participant in all of those,” he said of the practical jokes. “Yeah, I’m better looking than all of them and I’m more physically fit, but I’ve never been part of that juvenile behavior.”
A lifelong hunter, Fouts said he’s been able to enjoy plenty of hunting, fishing and golf since retiring this year.
“He still cooks dinner every night, he’s always done all the cooking,” Peggy Fouts said.
They hope to travel more, but their first excursion ended up colliding with impacts of the federal government shutdown.
“We arrived in Yellowstone on Monday at like 3 o’clock in the afternoon, paid our 25 bucks to get into the park and they promptly closed at midnight,” she said with a laugh.
“There’s nobody that’s worked harder or prepared more for retirement than Keith, and we just wish him and Peggy all the best in retirement,” Pimentel said.
Brionna Friedrich: 360-537-3933 or firstname.lastname@example.org and @DW_Brionna on Twitter.