Investigating Complex Crimes with Officer Byrd

MPD Officer Keith Byrd. Photo: Christine Rushton

Keith Byrd remembers the interrogation room where serial arsonist Maurice Dews sat in 2011. He can still see the scene when investigators brought in a sketch artist to draw the face of the man Dews swore he witnessed setting one of several fires in the District. Dews described the face in remarkable detail. He identified his own image as the arsonist’s.

“It was like watching the show ‘The Wire’ in real life,” Byrd said.

With the help of the arson investigation, prosecutors got Dews to plead guilty to setting five fires between 2008 and 2011, for which he received a prison sentence of 25 years.

It’s cases like those that make Byrd tick. The investigation, the data collection, the tracking – that’s why he moved on from DC Fire after eight years to the Metropolitan Police Department (MPD) in 2014. He and partner Officer James Keenan cover Police Service Area (PSA) 105 in DC’s Southwest and focus on investigating robberies and violent crimes. Their patrol can take them anywhere in the District depending on the case.

“I enjoy going out ‘ripping and running,’” Byrd said of daily patrol. “But investigation is more of a chess match against your opponent.”

Choosing a Career in Law Enforcement
Byrd, 35, knew in college he wanted to pursue a life in investigation and law enforcement. He grew up in Lancaster, Pa., and decided to attend Shippensburg University about 80 miles west of his hometown. There he earned his bachelor’s degree in criminal justice in 2005 and went off to join the DC Fire team in 2006. Cases like Dews’ arson fires taught him the skills he needed to hone his abilities as an investigator.

He worked with members from the homicide team and the alcohol, tobacco, firearms and explosives (ATF) team on the case.

He had a theory that the arsonist had modified lighters to work as incendiary devices. ATF and others didn’t think the theory panned out, but then they conducted another interview with Dews, who they thought just witnessed the crime. Dews told them he had a theory that the arsonist had modified lighters to start the fires. Byrd started to realize the connection then. It finally clicked when Dews identified himself to the sketch artist.

“It was one of the craziest things I’ve ever seen,” Byrd said.

Budget crunches and cuts to the arson unit started to spread the investigators too thin, though. Byrd found himself buried in writing reports for each case, and finally started dreading the alarm of each new fire. It meant more paperwork. “It became a cycle of not enjoying what you’re doing,” he said.

His drive to investigate still kept him in the business, as he tried working private insurance cases for a while, but he couldn’t see the benefit to his community as he could on Fire. He decided to join MPD and hasn’t regretted the move. His skill set from the arson unit has helped make the transition from investigating fires to digging into the First District’s crime cases. “This is really my element, my natural habitat – tracking people,” Byrd said.

Back in the Transport Car
To start nearly every day on their 9:30 a.m. to 6 p.m. Tuesday through Saturday shift, Byrd and Keenan stop at Philz Coffee near the waterfront in Southeast. On their stop on March 17 they ordered their large coffees and molasses cookies for the road, and Byrd stopped to chat with the baristas, who know his name and order. A woman sitting in the shop pulled him and Keenan away with an urgent, panicked look on her face. She had received an alert that MPD was responding to a shooting on the 2200 block of Minnesota Avenue SE near an elementary school. Keenan and Byrd checked the information on the situation, assured the woman the incident wasn’t precisely at the school, and let her know officers were at the scene. The man shot in that case died later that day.

This is what they do, Byrd said. He likes staying on the streets and in the community because he can help people like the woman in Philz better understand what the local officers can do to help protect them.

Back in the car, driving toward the evidence hold in DC’s Southwest, Byrd and Keenan hash out the details of a few arrest warrants they need to put together for the US Attorney’s office. They have been working a gun case and need to get serial numbers, building descriptions, and other data to present their evidence.

Their partnership got off to a somewhat rocky start back in late February, when Keenan locked the keys in the car, but now they anticipate each other’s moves. “One of the important parts of having a partner is when you complement each other,” Byrd said. And having the banter that keeps the days fresh and the team pushing through the cases, like that day in March.

“We’re going to end this day with two house-search warrants,” Byrd said, steering the car toward the First District’s station.

“And cell phone searches, too,” said Keenan.

“And somewhere in there, a partridge in a pear tree,” added Byrd.