When John McKee first enrolled at Polk State College, his ambitions didn’t match his current occupation. Now an alum, Polk State played a major role in helping him find his true passion.
Now a sergeant at the Bartow Police Department, McKee, 46, first enrolled at then Polk Community College in the 1990s. Naturally proficient with computer programming, McKee first began working in the technology field.
As a young man, McKee received the contract to build a database for Watkins Motor Lines in Lakeland. At the time, the trucking company was the largest less than truckload (LTL) shipping company in the area. As he attended Polk State, McKee later worked in the Education and Training Development Department at Publix Supermarkets’ corporate headquarters.
“I was very blessed because I had some really good jobs,” McKee said. “I just didn’t feel fulfilled in my career. I was just sitting in my cubicle.”
Looking for a change, McKee sought a career that allowed him to give back and make a difference. He thought about his father’s words.
“The thought of going into law enforcement was definitely an influence from my father,” McKee recalled. “I remember him saying that if he had to do it all over, he always wondered what his life would have been like as a cop.”
With a newfound career goal, McKee enrolled in the Law Enforcement Academy at Polk State’s Kenneth C. Thompson Institute for Public Safety (KCTIPS) in 2000.
“If you’re interested in law enforcement, Polk State has a great academy,” McKee said. “Do it and enjoy it. It’s going to be one of the best years of your life and sets the foundation for your career. You’ll never forget the people you go through the academy with.”
As McKee moved toward a career in law enforcement, getting a degree remained a goal. With a number of college credits already in tow, McKee took college classes in the morning and attended the academy at night. He ultimately left Polk State with his law enforcement certification and an Associate in Science in Criminal Justice Technology.
“The academy set me on a different course,” McKee explained. “The cool thing about law enforcement is you can really find your niche. Almost anything that you can do as a civilian, you can do in some form in law enforcement.”
Upon graduation, McKee found his first law enforcement job with the Polk County Sheriff’s Office. A native of Lakeland, McKee spent 11 years with the agency. In 2012, he stepped away to do consulting work, but ultimately missed life as a cop.
“I thought about leaving law enforcement for good,” he said. “Civilian life sounds good, but if you’ve served in law enforcement, there’s really nothing like it.”
McKee appreciated his time with the Sheriff’s Office and brought more than a decade of experience to the Bartow Police Department in 2016.
“Working at Bartow is one of the best decisions that I’ve ever made,” he said. “I really like the small city environment.”
After beginning his working career in a cubicle or in front of a computer, McKee said he enjoys coming into each workday not knowing what to expect.
“Every day you walk in, it’s a brand-new day,” he added. “You never know what’s going to happen. There are calls for service you’d love to forget, but there are calls where you can make a positive impact and change someone’s life. The opportunity to serve your community is unlike anything else. You get so many amazing opportunities to do something for somebody else.”
Since 2019, McKee has served as sergeant. This year, he was the lone member of the Bartow Police Department to attend the National Public Safety Innovation Academy (NIA) at Polk State’s Center for Public Safety. In partnership with Polk State and the Polk County Sheriff’s Office, NIA is one of just three national command schools in the country.
“NIA is the best school I’ve ever been to,” McKee noted. “For anyone who has the chance to go through it, it’s a must.”
NIA is an executive-level STEM-based eight-week course that prepares mid-level managers in law enforcement and corrections to take the next step in their careers. During the course, participants learn from subject matter experts from across the country to examine contemporary issues and explore future trends in the world of criminal justice. McKee was part of the first graduating cohort in March.
McKee attended NIA because he wants to continually improve how he serves his community and the members of his agency. During his time at NIA, he learned new skills through courses on emotional intelligence, cybersecurity, media relations, critical incident response, recruitment and retention, and more. McKee hopes his newfound knowledge will help him be promoted to captain at the Bartow Police Department.
“NIA is where the future in leadership is,” McKee said. “I’m honored to be able to bring what I learned back to my agency and community.”