Nevada County Sheriff Keith Royal reflects on a career in law enforcement
Sheriff Keith Royal has fired his gun just once in the line of duty.
A deputy in 1981 with the Sacramento County Sheriff’s Office, Royal was part of a contingent pursuing a murder suspect. When the chase ended Royal positioned his vehicle in an attempt to block the suspect.
Then the wanted man hit the accelerator, coming right at Royal.
“Gunned it,” Royal said of the suspect. “Caved in half of my car.”
Royal shot three rounds at the suspect’s moving vehicle. One lodged in the car’s visor.
At another time Royal responded to a domestic violence call. He saw a woman run from a home, shooting a gun at her husband as she fled.
Royal in that instance chose to run toward her and take her gun.
“We make those decisions based on the circumstances at the time,” he said.
Training helps officers remain calm during stressful times. Royal said he can tell an experienced deputy from the sound of his or her voice during a pursuit.
Younger officers talk fast, their voices pitched high. The experienced ones speak normally even during high-speed chases.
“I knew it was appropriate,” Royal said of the only time he’s fired his service weapon in the line of duty. “I knew it was the right thing to do.”
Royal, 66, will hang up his service weapon on Jan. 7, when sheriff’s Capt. Shannan Moon will take the oath of office and succeed her current boss. That moment will cap a 45-year career for Royal, who for 20 of those years has served as Nevada County sheriff.
“It’s been good,” Royal said. “I’ve got some very talented individuals. Shannan coming in — she’s going to be able to carry on.”
Royal has plenty of accomplishments he points to when asked.
For one, there’s search and rescue. That group of volunteers once didn’t have access to the level of training now available. Current volunteers have specialists in areas, like snow rescues, and assisted with the recent fire in Paradise.
Royal ticks off a number of other successes under his watch: upgraded jail security, a joint dispatch center that’s modernized, the consolidation of seven separate evidence facilities into the old Juvenile Hall, taking oversight of the county’s Animal Control Division and the implementation of community oriented policing.
There are more. He expanded the volunteer program with the Sheriff’s Office. Volunteers now help with parades and traffic control at wrecks, as well as civil service responsibilities.
“Which frees up deputies’ time,” Royal said.
The undersheriff handles day-to-day operations while the sheriff focuses on statewide issues that affect the local community. Royal said he dealt with realignment — the process of transferring certain state prisoners back to local jails — and worked on grants for overcrowded jails.
The Sheriff’s Office has about 170 employees and around a $35 million budget. The Board of Supervisors approves that budget, working with the sheriff each year during budgeting time.
“The sheriff was always amenable and worked with us,” Supervisor Hank Weston said.
Royal never pushed supervisors to pull funds from one department and give them to him. Instead he proved adept at finding money from other sources, like grants, alleviating pressure on the county’s general fund, Weston said.
“He had a great career in law enforcement,” Weston said. “I think he was good for the county.”
Alison Lehman, CEO of Nevada County, praised the sheriff.
“He is extremely responsive, often working in the (Emergency Operations Center) with staff during an emergency,” Lehman said in an email. “Congratulations to Sheriff Royal on his retirement and I appreciate his efforts for a smooth transition in leadership in the Sheriff’s Office.”
Marijuana hasn’t taken center stage throughout Royal’s career, though it’s played a large role over the past three years.
Royal has made his opinion of it extremely clear.
The sheriff in January 2016 brought the issue of a total outdoor grow ban to supervisors, who passed it. However, a vote of the people failed to ban it, leading to the creation of regulated cultivation in Nevada County — a process that’s still in the works.
Royal understands that California has moved into a new, legal phase of cannabis. He said he supports people helped by medicinal marijuana.
“What we see is recreational use,” he added. “If we can protect people from the nuisance issues, I’ve done my job. That’s kind of where I stand.”
Royal didn’t think Proposition 64 — the voter initiative that in November 2016 legalized recreational use — would pass. It did.
In a twist, Prop 64’s passage could help with the nuisance problem. Royal said he thinks large companies will cultivate on a massive scale, which could push some smaller farms like those in Nevada County out of business.
“It could,” Royal theorized. “It doesn’t mean I’m supporting it. We still have the issue of availability to youth.”
Supervisor Ed Scofield, who noted Royal supported him in his bid for the Board of Supervisors, said he and the sheriff have disagreed about cannabis. However, Royal didn’t push back against Scofield as supervisors moved toward regulation.
“I’m not sure he agreed with that as much as I did,” Scofield said.
Marijuana aside, Scofield praised the sheriff.
“I kind of look at Keith as a team player,” he said.
Serving as a Sacramento deputy, Royal around 1979 went searching for a missing 9-year-old girl. Officers found her, realizing she’d been struck over the head and molested. A helicopter took the girl to the hospital and she lived.
Eleven years later Royal saw her again. Then a young woman, she attended an event about sexual assault.
“To be able to find her and she’s alive — that means a lot,” Royal said.
Moments like that are scattered across Royal’s career. Coming from a military and law enforcement family, Royal had a decision to make after graduating college. His uncles served in the Air Force. His father, killed in the line of duty, had served with the Sacramento County Sheriff’s Office.
“I was proud of him, what he’d accomplished, what it represented,” Royal said. “I have no regrets.”
The man accused of killing his father was convicted and sent to prison. He later escaped, was arrested again and died in custody years later.
Strangely, Royal encountered the man’s younger brother in high school wrestling. They developed a friendship that wasn’t negatively affected when Royal learned the other boy was related to the man who killed his father.
“It never affected my brother or myself,” he said, adding that he doesn’t prejudge people. “I think that’s why I’ve been successful.”
Royal became a deputy on Jan. 6, 1975. He served in patrol, corrections and then patrol again. Twice he had “brushes” with the East Area Rapist.
Royal’s partner around 1978 or 1979 chased the suspect after a burglary and rape were interrupted. Royal wasn’t in the area at the time.
Around 1979 Royal heard about an Auburn officer arrested for shoplifting. When he heard authorities accuse Joseph James DeAngelo of being the East Area Rapist, the memory clicked.
“I remember specifically the call where he was arrested for shoplifting,” Royal said. “We don’t arrest too many cops from Auburn.”
Royal continued to rise through law enforcement ranks. He also began the slow move to Nevada County.
He first moved to Granite Bay for more land before buying 40 acres here, commuting to Sacramento for his job.
Then came Royal’s first run for sheriff in 1994. He called his reception mixed and didn’t win. He took the office on his second attempt in 1998.
Royal said he wanted the challenge. He also wanted to make a difference.
“To look back on my career, I think I’ve made a difference,” Royal said. “The challenges have been many and it’s been very rewarding.
“I’m going to miss the people,” he added later. “I’m proud of what I’ve accomplished, but I didn’t do it myself.”
Alan Riquelmy is a staff writer at The Union, a sister publication of the Sierra Sun. Email him at email@example.com or call 530-477-4239.