BILOXI, Miss. (WLOX) - Every day on the job is dangerous for first responders. But for nearly two months, the officers at the Biloxi Police Department have been putting on a brave face to protect the city while also mourning one of their own.
The leader of the Biloxi Police Department, Chief John Miller, has been a symbol of strength and professionalism since May 5 when Officer Robert McKeithen was gunned down outside the police station.
From the moment he found out about the tragic shooting death of McKeithen, Chief Miller has remained a calming, father-like voice throughout a time of great sadness and soul searching, not only for the city’s police department but also for the entire Coast community.
The crime scene and tragedy were still fresh when Miller calmly stepped in front of the camera to break the news to the public: Officer McKeithen had been killed, shot just outside in the parking lot of the city’s Public Safety Center. For any law enforcement officer, especially the chief of police, it’s a real-life nightmare.
“If you’re in the middle of some heated battle or if you’re in a gunfight or something, that would be terrible," the chief explained. "But even to me, it’s a worse tragedy because that wasn’t taking place. It was something that didn’t have to happen. Nothing has to happen, but it seemed like that worsened it. It’s hard to explain.”
The saying goes ten percent of life is what happens, and 90 percent is how you handle it. In this case, Chief Miller says his reaction was simple.
"First, we have an obligation to the citizens to keep them safe, regardless of what happened, to continue on with the job,” Miller added. “I couldn’t make any of them go home. From that time on, they wanted to stay and do what they had to do. From officers to dispatchers to front desk folks, they wanted to keep going. If it can be any easier, that made it easier.”
From each news conference to each memorial that led up to McKeithen’s funeral, Miller said none of it was easy.
“It’s not one of those jobs where you say, ‘Hey, we’ll just start again tomorrow’,” he said. “It never stops. It continues on.”
Continuing on meant turning over the shooting investigation to the Gulfport Police Department and to fellow chief and colleague Leonard Papania.
"There’s different ways you can measure a police organization. By far, when an organization goes through what Biloxi did, it is a measure, and that starts with the leadership at the top,” Chief Papania said.
Throughout those tense hours after the shooting to the arrest of suspected triggerman, Darian Atkinson, to the emotional aftermath of losing a man who many say was one of Biloxi’s best, Miller serves as the stoic and determined face of his department.
"Just the community, just the things that they did and the way they stepped up for us, I can’t imagine agencies that don’t have that support and what they have to go through,” Miller said.
Chief Miller also says he fed off the emotional strength of McKeithen’s family, especially his wife. He also says meeting with grief counselors in the days after the shooting played a big part in helping everyone come to grips with losing Officer McKeithen.