Tough SWAT leader DeBow is a prankster at heart

Tom KingOur Town Heroes

It was another busy day for Pappy Keith. After a day of training with his SWAT team last week he shed the armor and weapons to pick up 10-month-old granddaughter Emersyn Rose Chaney. Her Pappy has his priorities in place.

“Pappy” DeBow with granddaughter Emersyn

Pappy is Knoxville Police Department Lt. Keith DeBow, a 24-year veteran who graduated from the KPD Training Academy in 1995. After bringing Emersyn home, there’s a chance he’ll be cooking dinner for the other Lt. DeBow – KPD Lt. Tammy DeBow – his wife.

A number of people around police headquarters know about his cooking credentials. One year he won the city’s Chili Cookoff Challenge. And they really enjoy his apple butter. “I had a great teacher, my mom,” he says. He says some of his specialties are roasted veggies, anything grilled, spaghetti and lasagna, baked bread and pepper chili jelly.

But someone who enjoys his culinary skillset tells us more. “He’s a fabulous cook and he also makes it look pretty on the plate. He has some serious skills in the kitchen and goes way beyond what he claims,” says wife Tammy.  “He can look into your refrigerator and take what’s in it and make a gourmet meal. He makes all of our meals, and without him I would starve. But he’s not much for cleaning up.”

His late mother, Betty, taught both him and his brother how to cook. His late father, Dale, was his role model. He retired as a sergeant after 25 years with the Lakewood, N.J., police department.

Professionally, DeBow, 51, has two jobs at the KPD. He is the Executive Officer to the West District Commander, Capt. David Powell. Since 2011 he has been the Commander of the Department’s Special Operations Squad (SOS) – more commonly known as the SWAT (Special Weapons and Tactics) team.

The two Lt. DeBows do talk shop at their Seymour home. “We try to avoid it as much as we can, but it still happens,” he says.

In addition to the cooking, his work skills are respected. On April 1, 2019, he was presented with the department’s prestigious “Officer Mike Waggoner Leadership Award” during the KPD Employees of the Year luncheon. The professional who receives this is someone with these traits:

  • Seen as a long-term leader in the department (rank or position will not be a factor).
  • Always displays a positive influence, selfless service and a strong moral character.
  • Supports the mission of the department.
  • Inspires future generations as a teacher and mentor.
  • Is universally respected throughout the department.

Waggoner remains with the KPD today as a detective.

New KPD Chief Eve Thomas also weighed in on DeBow:

“He was very deserving of this most prestigious award! As I have not worked directly with him, his leadership and ingenuity has always been a topic of discussion and admiration in our department.”

Lt. Keith DeBow

You sense a bit about DeBow when you walk into his office and see the pictures of actor John Wayne on the walls. Tough guy. Patriotic. Right and wrong. Love for the military. The military has been part of his life as well. Before joining the KPD, he was in the U.S. Army for four years.

He’s had a steady rise in the department since graduating from the KPD Training Academy in 1995. He worked as a patrol officer in some of Knoxville’s toughest neighborhoods until his promotion to sergeant in June 2002. He was the Recruit Coordinator at the academy as a sergeant and still teaches there from time to time. As the Recruit Coordinator, he was involved in every aspect of the recruits’ lives – as a motivator, coach, disciplinarian and father figure.

In June 2010, Sgt. DeBow was promoted to lieutenant.

Today’s SWAT team has 25 members, and since its inception 43 years ago, in 1976, only 104 KPD officers have been team members. “That sounds amazing, and it is,” DeBow says. “These are very dedicated officers, on call 24/7, who work under a great deal of stress, what I call tactical intensity. Their lives are on the line every time we go out.”

The team handles a number of situations – all barricaded suspects, hostage situations, suicidal individuals, sniper situations, mass-arrest incidents, high-risk drug raids, serving warrants, civil disorders and dignitary protection.

The squad consists of four distinct teams. Two teams focus on high-risk entries. The third team serves a containment function, protecting the inner perimeter, and the fourth team is comprised of the counter sniper unit and observers, who provide intelligence and long-range fire support.

This serious man, a la John Wayne, does have a lighter side.

Beware of his practical jokes, someone told me. One fellow officer found a tarantula in his coffee cup one morning. Another police lieutenant returned to his office after roll call and was shocked by a loud scare; DeBow was curled up under this desk for 45 minutes waiting for him. And he got him! There’s more …

One time he took a coffee cup and had the bottom cut off of it and filled the hollowed-out bottom part with about a hundred BBs. He put some silicon glue above it and then filled it halfway on the top part with coffee, so the other lieutenant thought some random person had left a half-full cup of coffee on his desk. When he picked it up to get it off his desk, the BBs scattered everywhere.

Or there’s the time he got an extra key to an officer’s car and filled it with shipping/packing foam peanuts. “This particular officer is a bit OCD so that was just a bonus … and every once in awhile, after the officer had thoroughly cleaned his car, Keith would put one packing peanut in it from time to time so the officer was convinced he never ever got all of the packing peanuts out of the vehicle,” one source said.

There’s one more side of DeBow to share – the literary one. Jon Jefferson is a contemporary American author and has has written 10 novels in the “Body Farm” series under the pen name Jefferson Bass, in consultation with renowned forensic anthropologist William M. Bass of Knoxville. When Jefferson wants to be certain he’s accurate in writing about matters involving the police, investigations or SWAT tactics, he consults, usually over lunch, with DeBow. He has done this for two or three of the books and is given special thanks in the books’ forewords.

Editor’s Note: This is part of a weekly series – Our Town Heroes – highlighting Knoxville’s emergency-service professionals. Watch for this feature every Monday on KnoxTNToday, and if you have suggestions about a first responder/emergency-services professional we need to feature, please email Tom King or call him at (865) 659-3562.


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