When Biloxi patrol officer Robert McKeithen was ready to take a break, he’d radio into dispatchers that he was 10-7, or out of service.
His lifeline on the other end of the radio already knew his location, even before he said it.
“You weren’t a night shift dispatcher if you didn’t realize that was his beloved Cedar Lake Waffle House,” said Alex Snyder, a dispatcher shift supervisor for Biloxi police.
McKeithen — known by dispatchers and police officers alike as “Mac,” “Pawpaw,” “Old Man” or “Robo Cop” — loved the diner. He’d go nightly for food, coffee and a cigarette.
Snyder, along with the dispatchers who work on the same shift as McKeithen, now only have the memories of the patrolmen dispatching in to say he was “out at Cedar Lake.”
“I’m still in shock that none of us will hear those words from him again ... and our hearts are broken,” Snyder said.
McKeithen, a 23-year veteran of the police department, was killed in what officials are calling an “ambush” attack the night of May 5. He was shot multiple times in the back outside of the Biloxi Police Department, near his police SUV. Police have arrested five people in connection to his death so far, including suspected shooter Darian Atkinson.
Although Snyder and McKeithen hadn’t worked on the same shift since 2018, the two were close.
Snyder, who began working as a Biloxi dispatcher in 2005, said McKeithen has been a consistent figure at night, a shift that often has turnover because of promotions, career shifts and family circumstances. McKeithen and Snyder’s husband, Tommy, worked together as police officers for a while in north Biloxi. Tommy eventually moved to day shift, then to traffic division, but McKeithen always asked about him. He attended their wedding.
“He saw me go through so many changes in my life,” Snyder said. “From an unmarried kid with her first big girl job to a married floor supervisor with two daughters.”
‘You can hear them before you even see them’
For the dispatchers who worked McKeithen’s shift, adjusting to the new normal without him has been emotional.
“We have a connection like family,” shift supervisor Donna Newsome said Thursday night. “He was like granddaddy. He was the oldest on the shift.”
When he wasn’t on the other side of the radio, McKeithen spent a lot of time with his shift at the communications office on Popps Ferry Road. He’d come in for coffee and to share stories on slow nights. He’d also come to use the computer to finish reports, even though he had one in his police vehicle.
“He was a one-finger typer,” Newsome said, smiling. “We knew once he got on the computer it would take him a while.”
Newsome has been a dispatcher with Biloxi for 14 years. She said dispatchers form special connections with officers, making it their mission that “everybody comes home” at the end of their shift.
“We connect with them. We hear their voices even when we’re not here,” Newsome said. “You can hear them before you even see them.”
‘...because they understand’
The night McKeithen was shot, Newsome was in the dispatch office with the rest of her team. It was the first time an officer would be killed on her shift. As soon as officials confirmed McKeithen had died, Newsome’s focus shifted to her dispatchers.
“I was making sure everyone was OK, still able to function,” she said. In moments of tragedy in despair, police dispatchers still have a job to do. They had to make sure the other officers on duty were safe.
“I took a visual count, making sure everyone was able to keep going.”
When things slowed down, Newsome told her shift they could go home early. But nobody left.
“They said, ‘No, I want to stay until the end,’” Newsome said. “It was easier for me to be here, to come back to work with this group, because they understand.”
McKeithen will be laid to rest Monday afternoon at Biloxi National Cemetery after a funeral and service at First Baptist Church on Popps Ferry Road.