Hal McKinney was born in Fresno on Aug. 13, 1923, the son of a city fire captain. He attended local schools, graduating from Fresno Technical High School in the watershed year of 1941. That fall, prior to war breaking out, he joined the U.S. Army Air Corps. He served two-and-a-half years in Europe during the war.
After his discharge, he returned to Fresno and worked several years for Peerless Pumps. In June 1950, he was hired by the sheriff's office, serving as a bailiff. As a reservist, he was called back to the army in September 1950, for service during the Korean conflict.
He returned to the sheriff's department in April 1952, working in the jail, and later as a narcotics officer. He attended Fresno State College while working full-time, earning his bachelor's and master's degrees in criminology. He rose through the ranks to the position of undersheriff. He was appointed sheriff by the Board of Supervisors, replacing Sheriff Guy Langley, and was sworn in on July 7, 1975. He was elected in his own right in 1978 and 1982, and chose not to run for re-election in 1986. After leaving the department he taught college classes at Fresno City College and CSU-Fresno. He also appeared for several years as a commentator on local issues at a local television station. In retirement the father of four continues to live in Fresno.
Sheriff McKinney was the last Sheriff-Coroner of Fresno County. Feeling that it was a conflict of interest for the sheriff to administer the coroner functions, he convinced the Board of Supervisors to create a separate coroner's office in the late 1970s. Sheriff McKinney led the department into the computer age, introducing computerized dispatching and records systems. To meet the expanding role deputies were forced to face, he organized the department's S.W.A.T. Team and Bomb Squad. The planning and initial construction of the new main jail at the northwest corner of Fresno and M Streets, took place toward the end of his tenure.
In the late 1970s prison gang activity on the streets of Fresno County led to a spike in the number of homicides. A record 51 cases were investigated in the unincorporated areas in 1977. Among the more notable cases solved during McKinney's term of office were the 1977 arrest of the serial killer, David McGown, who had murdered several young girls in East Fresno, the case of Fernando Caro, who killed two young cousins near Fowler in August 1980, the Fran's Market murders of September 1980, the 1984 case of Steve Catlin, the serial wife-poisoner, and the 1984-85 investigation of the serial prostitute killer, Wilbur Jennings.