Tracey McKeown would have never dreamed of working for the Mercer County Prosecutor’s office for the past 29 years when she graduated from Curry College with a business degree.

Now, the woman who had never planned on a career in law enforcement has become the first female chief of detectives in the county’s history after being promoted on May 1.

Mercer County Prosecutor Angelo J. Onofri (second from left) with new chief of county detectives Tracey McKeown, first assistant prosecutor Stephanie A. Katz and deputy first assistant prosecutor Amy Devenny.

McKeown has worked her way up the ladder in a career that began in 1990. She has worked in the Economic Crimes, Child Abuse and Sexual Assault, and Grand Jury units. She has been supervisor of 10 units: Grand Jury, Juvenile, Arson, Special Victims, Domestic Violence, Megan’s Law, Cyber Crimes, Trial, Evidence, Identification, and Internal Affairs. She has also served as co-coordinator of the Child Abduction Response Team.

“It’s been very rewarding. Obviously I’ve come much further than I ever thought I would come in this field,” McKeown says. “Coming in as a business major, not knowing anything on criminal justice, I’ve learned a lot.”

As chief of detectives, she oversees the 65 detectives within every investigational unit in the office. She relies on those detectives in each unit when a major crime happens, such as a homicide.

“It’s a privileged position to be in. I’m definitely honored and thankful for the prosecutor for having the belief in me that I can do this,” McKeown says.

Her day-to-day job may involve different tasks such as meeting with the prosecutor regarding different investigations, overseeing matters that the investigational units are handling, and working with the different municipalities on investigations.

Municipal police throughout the county may help McKeown and her detectives on investigations while they help them in their investigations as well, she says.

“It’s a joint effort, a lot of crimes overlap between the adjacent municipalities,” she says.

She has noticed in the past 29 years she has worked in the Mercer County Prosecutor’s office that crime has risen significantly, saying that shootings have been occurring more frequently and happen at any time and location.

McKeown is trying to work with different municipalities and police departments to implement initiatives to try and offset the crime rate in the hopes of reducing it in the Mercer area.

“I’m hoping we can progress forward and make the community a little safer, anything we can do to make life here better,” McKeown says.

McKeown has been a Hopewell resident since she was four. After graduating Hopewell Highschool, she went to Mercer County Community College for a year. Then she transferred to Curry College in Massachusetts, where she studied business and also played soccer.

She had job offers in the business field lined up and awaiting her after college, only to realize that none of those careers truly interested her.

“Nothing intrigued me. I didn’t want to sit behind a desk,” McKeown says.

She reached out to Mercer County prosecutor Paul T. Koenig Jr., whose daughter she graduated from high school with. At the time, McKeown says, the Mercer County Prosecutor’s office was looking for female detectives to join the Child Abuse and Sexual Assault unit.

Koenig knew of McKeown’s character after coaching her in recreational soccer for years. He interviewed her and offered her an opportunity to become a detective.

“He said that I need to be able to shoot a gun and qualify,” McKeown says. “I really wasn’t interested in criminal justice at first, but it intrigued me when he offered it.”

She decided to take the opportunity.

“It seemed like a great option, and I decided that it was worth it,” she says. If she did not enjoy her new career path, she told herself, she could always go back to business.

McKeown attended a class called the Basic Course for Investigators at the Army National Guard in Lawrence Township through the New Jersey Division of Criminal Justice. Her training took around two months to complete. Nowadays, McKeown says, it takes much longer to become a detective.

She began work as a detective in the Child Abuse and Sexual Assault unit, which she was assigned to for 16 years. At the time, only females were assigned to the Child Abuse and Sexual Assault unit.

“That changed a long time ago,” she says. There are currently three male detectives out of five in the unit, with a male supervisor. “It doesn’t have to be a female that talks to a victim, it’s about how you talk to people and interact,” she says.

Many times people have asked McKeown how she is able to be involved in such work that has an upsetting nature.

“You have to put that aside,” she says. “Getting the person justice helps make up for the sadness that goes along with it.”

One of the toughest things McKeown has experienced in her line of work is when the victim does not receive justice. She says it proves difficult after putting all of her energy into a case and realizing that it might not end in the way she thought it would, or when there is not enough to prosecute.

“I try to offset that by helping [the victims]get other services whether it be counseling or support services,” McKeown says.

She left the Child Abuse and Sexual Assault unit to go on maternity leave. When she came back, she moved throughout many different units and received her first promotion to sergeant in 2010. She was promoted to lieutenant in 2016, captain in 2017, and then chief of detectives in May.

During her time as captain in 2017, McKeown was in charge of overseeing the grand jury detention unit and trial unit along with the Internal Affairs unit, which investigates allegations involving police officers.

“I don’t think anyone refers to that as something you would like to do,” McKeown says. “I would hope that people who know me know that I am fair. I’m going to go by the books and do what I need to do.”

McKeown, married and a mother of three, says she spends most of her free time with her college-age daughters and sports-involved son, who is entering high school.

Mondays through Fridays McKeown is in the office unless something major occurs over a weekend that requires her to come in.

“Are there good days and bad days? Absolutely, but overall it’s been a great career,” she says. “I took the opportunity and I wouldn’t change a thing.”

McKeown says her family understands the demanding nature of her work. “Over the years, have I missed things with all of them? Absolutely. You try to juggle between work and family, they’re both very important,” she says. “I do a pretty good job trying to juggle both.”

For McKeown, down time is a rare occurrence and during it, she enjoys gardening and doing yard work.

One of the rewards of her job is being able to see the lasting impact she has made throughout her cases over the years, such as when previous victims reach out to her.

“Seeing they’re doing well and how far they’ve come, that in and of itself is the world,” McKeown says.

Along with her recent achievement of being promoted to chief, McKeown has received awards throughout her career such as the Cherish the Child Award for Outstanding service and the New Jersey Child Assault Prevention Award for Law Enforcement.

“I’ve worked with Tracey for over 20 years,” says Mercer County prosecutor Angelo Onofri. “She was a great detective and investigator, she’s been an exemplary supervisor, and she’s come through the ranks and has the respect of the entire office.”

Also promoted were lieutenants Tarek Elkachouty and James Francis to captain; sergeants Bryan Cottrell, Eric Hastings and Gary Wasko to lieutenant; and Detectives Joseph Paglione, Kevin Searing and Ryan Woodhead to sergeant.