DETROIT (CNN) — Sgt. Kenneth Steil was a cop in a tough area, and his death was a heartbreaking loss to his family, the police department, and a city struggling to recover.
“He was a special person,” said Detroit Police Chief James Craig. “(He) was someone who epitomizes a police leader.”
Steil, a 21-year veteran of the Detroit Police Department, never had a single complaint lodged against him, despite leading a hard-charging special operations team in the 9th Precinct, one of Detroit’s toughest.
Year on year, Craig says violent crime in the area known for urban decay, drugs and gangs has fallen 50%, something he attributes to Steil and his team.
“It’s no doubt that they played a significant role in reducing violent crime in the 9th precinct,” he said.
The magic of Shark
Nicknamed “Shark,” it’s fair to say Steil had an obsession with the ocean creatures.
An expert diver and accomplished photographer, his honeymoon was spent in Fiji, diving and photographing sharks. Carved into his wedding ring were a hammerhead and a great white shark, his tattoos were all sharks, and in his living room, he had a 800-gallon tank in his living room housing his favorite pets: sharks.
“Let me tell you the magic of Shark,” said Craig.
When morale in the 9th Precinct was low and the special operations team wasn’t functioning, it was Steil who got them back to work. “This leader,” said Craig, “brought the team back together and went out and did phenomenal work.”
Last month, Steil — whose job involved getting guns off Detroit’s dangerous streets — was chasing down a suspect when the man turned and fired a shotgun at him. Steil’s protective vest took the brunt of the shot but a few of the pellets hit his chest in an unprotected area just under his right arm.
Steil was in the hospital for about a week and was on the way to a full recovery. But the day he was to be discharged, he suffered a complication, likely a blood clot, and collapsed and died.
A family’s biggest fear
Steil’s wife, JoAnn, says she always knew this day might come.
“He knew my biggest fear was that phone call or the car driving to the house,” she said, trying to control her tears. “And yeah, it was a fear of mine, and the fear came true.”
The couple’s children, 5-year-old William and 3-year-old Alexander, idolized their father. In a heartbreaking moment, Alexander was photographed saluting his father’s casket from the window of his patrol car.
“They’ve changed,” said JoAnn Steil. “They understand their dad’s not there, and it’s hard on them.”
The children carry their father with them, in attitude and spirit.
“William is his father’s twin with my complexion,” said JoAnn. “Alexander is identical to his father in as far as how tenacious he is.”
A rock and a role model
That tenacity extended from his family to work to his community.
“A lot of people ask how I’m not angry,” JoAnn said. “My response to that is God gave me that week with him that most people don’t get when they’re shot in the chest. I had one of the most incredible weeks of my life with him in the hospital, and I don’t want to forget that.”
In their last week together, JoAnn said her husband showed her how to forgive. Just as he forgave the man who shot him, so does she.
“I truly feel in my heart, if this young man knew and completely understood the effects of his actions, and what he took away, he wouldn’t have done what he did,” she said.
Steil’s colleagues won’t forget him either. Kejuan Anderson, just three years on the force, says Steil was generous with his time, shared his experience and was an all-around great mentor. Humbleness and humility, says Anderson, were the most important lessons.
Many times, when apprehending a suspect, Anderson said, Shark would “talk to them and say ‘listen man you can still change your life.’ He’s one of those people who looked at somebody and seen the absolute best in anybody no matter who you were.”
Community leaders in the 9th Precinct knew Steil and trusted him. “If he saw something that looked fishy to him he would actually investigate,” said Andre Walk, president of the 9th Precinct Community Relations Council. “He was very passionate about the community.”
Bishop Daryl Harris, who runs Total Life Christian Ministry, knew Sgt. Steil as a solid cop who was making a difference in a tough part of Detroit. “When you lose a good officer,” said Harris, “it’s impactful to the entire community.”
Steil was a volunteer Salvation Army bell-ringer during the holidays, and his family has seen the goodwill he spread returned. Everyone from the mayor to the police department to neighbors and even strangers have helped and support has poured in. His family is concentrating efforts on raising college funds for his two young children.
Craig promoted Steil to captain posthumously. He says the officer proves the rule that one person can make a difference, no matter how tough or dangerous the job.
When Craig visited Steil in the hospital, Steil looked at him and said, “You know, I’m glad I took the round,” Craig recalled. “My team, they’re young, they have life ahead (and) I’d rather take the round than any of them,” Steil told him.
For Craig, those words are just one example of what made Steil a rock to his family, a mentor and friend to his colleagues, and a role model for police officers everywhere.