I met David Kieffer within the first few weeks working for the newspaper in Secaucus – during one of those trips when I had to travel to the police station to collect iems from the blotter.
Prior to this, people in Town Hall had asked me more than once if I had met him yet, grinning widely when I replied “No,” each claiming I was in for a rare treat when I finally did.
Kieffer, unlike most other officers, preferred the night shift, he told me later with a wink, suggesting less rigid protocol and fewer commanding officers.
My first glimpse of Kieffer, however, was a surprise, as he stormed into the records room amid wisecracks and high-fives. He broadcast something I had seen in no other police officer: an unquenchable energy that expanded to fill whatever space he occupied, a sense of presence that remained for a time even after he had left.
If anything, Kieffer dressed more sharply than any of the other officers, each line of his uniform so perfect, he might have used a t-square to gain the effect. A shorter man than many, he managed to fill out the corners of his uniform shirt so completely that the buttons struggled to contain him, not from fat; all muscle, each highlighted by the tight blue fabric.
Kieffer strutted, not walked. Yet he managed this without the arrogance typical of tough men I had seen. He seemed to parody himself and his role as a police officer, as if even he couldn't quite believe how he had managed to get where he was going or do what he was doing. Humor glinted in his eyes as he laughed over some perpetual joke.
He had a box-shaped face with the front side flat, nose, mouth and eyebrows all on the same plane, so that he lacked what most people might have called "classic features."
Over the years, I would see his expression alter only in degree, until the last time I saw him when his expression ceased to represent the real Kieffer. His moods tended to shift form slapstick to sarcastic, the sharpness of his smile revealing which degree we might expect.
On that first day, he displayed a particularly playful mood, since he was just then making his way off day shift, edging closer toward the overnight hour in which he thrived best. He teased the other officers, drawing from each an expression of long-endured pain, each stern figure clearly having put up with his antics for some time.
If anything, Kieffer dressed more sharply than any of the other officers, each line of his uniform so perfect, he might have used a t-square to gain the effect.
I had seen the same tattoos on the hands of prisoners and heard tales from one or two about how these symbolized the struggle between good and evil, right and left reminding convicts of the internal vigilance needed to succeed in reforming themselves. Just why Kieffer wore these, no one said – even Kieffer only shrugged when I asked him about them.
I learned later Kieffer had the tattoos done when he was 17 or 18 years old, before he decided to become a cop. Kieffer's only original ambition was to work for the town's road department.
By most people's reckoning, Kieffer was dogged, stubborn and unyielding – pursuing his idea of wrong with such persistence as to endanger himself if necessary. His name came up again and again in police reports about high risk situations, each time his aggressive behavior leading to an arrest.
Kieffer – perhaps recalling his own teenage years – had a particular passion for uncovering underage drinking, and often, routed businesses selling alcohol to minors.
One evening – while I was waiting to go to a board meeting in Town Hall -- I made my way to the center of town seeking a cup of coffee. Suddenly, out of the dark, a figure veered toward my car, waving both arms at me to stop. When I pulled over, I found an out-of-uniform Kieffer tapping on my passenger-side window asking to be let in.
I reached over and unlocked the door and in he slipped, grinning at me, his eyes alive with some devilishness I was yet to become acquainted with.
“See those kids,” he said, jabbing his tattooed forefinger at the windshield to indicate a flock of teens just then rolling along the sidewalk toward the town's plaza.
“Yes,” I said.
“Follow them, but go easy. I don’t want them to know we’re behind them.”
When I inquired as to what he was up to, he told me someone had pulled him aside to warn him about the kids, saying they were on their way to purchase booze – part of some pre-arranged meeting that would allow them to arrive at a local liquor store at a previously specified time.
We drove slowly, my small, dented Mazda hardly a vehicle suited for espionage, floating behind the kids like a ghost, yet inconspicuous because it seemed the last vehicle an officer of the law would use to apprehend them. The only people who seemed to take notice of me were those semi-public officials just then making their way to Town Hall to attend the meeting, perhaps wondering why I was traveling in a direction opposite of theirs, and why I was moving so slowly.
Although Kieffer's expression still had a touch of his characteristic humor, his mouth and eyes hinted of something far more professional, and after a moment I realized Kieffer was engaged in a hunt, and would not rest until he had hunted down his prey.
When the kids turned at the bank and continued passed the library, I thought Kieffer's tipster had deceived him. Not one of the teens even glanced across the street toward the supermarket complex or the liquor store there. But Kieffer insisted I continue after the kids as they walked along the service road. Once we made the turn, we saw the kids turn into the other, larger liquor store there.
Kieffer’s grin broadened. “Got them,” he said, then eased out of the car, wasting no word or wave at me. So intent was he on those he hunted, he seemed to take no note of others in the parking lot, mumbling instead into his portable radio for backup as he made his way toward the doors through which the teens had just disappeared.
I watched for a moment, then took alarm at the time and rushed off to my meeting. The next day – when collecting police blotter items – I took note of arrest of the liquor manager for serving minors.
Over the years, his name appeared often in the arrest records, but this occurred so often it ceased to be novel.
One exception to this occurred a few years later, when Kieffer got a radio call from another police officer, who had taken notice of some strange goings-on in the normally peaceful center of town. In Secaucus, even bar fights had grown rare. But the other officer had seen men coming and going from an apartment above a restaurant there.
Kieffer, always up for a little adventure, suggested he and the other officer check it out, and rushed from his post a few blocks away to join him on the sidewalk. After calling headquarters for backup, the two men entered the street-level door, and then slowly climbed the stairs to the second floor.
Each officer listened closely for possible sounds of alarm. They heard instead what sounded like computer games being played, that moan and whistle that better marked an arcade than sober office setting. Yet it wasn't until they mounted the stairs and peered through the partially open door into the office upstairs that the officers learned the reason for the odd sounds, and why the men in the office had not heard the two officers climbing the stairs: They were too involved in checking out six video gambling machines installed in the office. This arrest won Kieffer a significant amount of media attention for breaking up a gambling ring.
Gradually his name appeared slightly less often in the police reports. At the time, I put this off to his growing older, telling myself he had finally matured, though deep down I knew better and waited for an opportunity to ask him about it. He said he was about to retire.
“I'm ill,” he said, then answering my incredulous glance (he looked at the peak of physical fitness). “No, really, it's my heart.”
Kieffer struggled to explain the difficult prognosis, as if he hardly believed it himself. He had suffered no attack, displayed no symptoms, and if not for a routine blood test telling him of elevated enzymes, he might never have discovered the problem.
Even then, the doctors didn't immediately diagnosis congestive heart failure, and only after bringing in a specialist did they find an answer. Kieffer's heart had deteriorated and he seemed unable to do anything about it – though the continued excitement created by his job, a sudden jolt of adrenalin might well kill him.
“That's why I have to retire,” he said, mumbling something about an eventual possible cure, but from that last expression, I knew he didn't believe one would come.
Kieffer died on Oct. 12, 2013, at age 60, a monumental figure who will be remembered for his humor and his dedication to duty, as well as his love of his family.
Mayor Michael Gonnelli asked for a moment of silence at the Oct. 22 Town Council meeting to remember him and the good work Kieffer had done as a police officer in Secaucus.
Al Sullivan may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.