Shortly after the council approved his appointment on Tuesday, Acting Chief Burke Waldron left City Hall, grabbed dinner, and went to the Police Station.
“I was there until midnight,” he said, “trying to meet with as many people as I could.
“Without exception, they've all offered, ‘let me know whatever I can do to help with the move’ - pick stuff up, move stuff. It seems very, very tight knit and, you know, family oriented. So I'm looking forward to it.”
Beginning August 1, Waldron will run the Bethel Police Department’s day-to-day operations while the city conducts an in-depth search for a more permanent hire. He’s a retired State Trooper with over 25 years of experience and he said he’s looking forward to the challenge.
As a lieutenant, Waldron oversaw assault and homicide investigations. As the Wildlife Troopers’ Operations Commander, he managed boats, special projects, and aircraft. As Bethel’s interim police chief, Waldron will lead a department that’s overextended and understaffed. It has been operating without a chief for over a month, since former Chief Andre Achee abruptly retired.
The Bethel PD is trying to hire more officers, but they have multiple vacancies. Understaffing is a problem that Waldron is familiar with.
“Nationwide, there's a problem right now with recruiting police officers,” he said. “There's another police agency in the interior Alaska that I've been told has, you know, close to 40 percent vacancy.”
Waldron added that some law enforcement agencies in Alaska attract applicants by allowing them to keep “two-on, two-off” schedules. Bethel is currently one of those communities. Officers spend two weeks living in the communities they police, and then have the option to take two weeks off and go home to other towns or cities. While that’s a strategy that Waldron’s open to, he said that he’s not sure it’s effective.
“Personally, as a police officer I wanted to be part of the community,” he said.
Understaffing can create a cascade of other problems for departments. According to Waldron, police departments with multiple vacancies can have trouble responding quickly to calls. “You can just try to be as efficient as you can until times are better,” he said.
In Bethel, many of the calls that the police receive are alcohol-related. Waldron said that he’s dealt with alcohol-related crime and public safety issues before, and that he hopes to collaborate with the community as he addresses them.
“I think the community safety patrol is proving to be a successful program,” he said, adding that non-profits and volunteer groups can also be helpful.
“Twenty-five years ago, you know, people that were unable to take care of themselves because of alcohol ingestion or anything else - we took them to the jail,” said Waldron. “And there are now facilities out there that are more appropriate for that.”
Waldron’s selection as Acting Police Chief was not without some controversy. At Tuesday’s council meeting, Vice Mayor Fred Watson voted against Waldron’s appointment and raised concerns about his experience, noting that Waldron spent much of his career with the Fish and Wildlife Troopers. Watson also noted that before Waldron’s visit this week, he hadn’t been to Bethel in over ten years.
Waldron said that he enjoyed this trip to Bethel, and that he’s looking forward to connecting further with the community.
“"I cannot be as successful as I want to be without a collaborative, interactive, open relationship with the community," He said. "So flag me down when you see me riding around the town, in the grocery store.
“That's all part of the challenge I'm looking forward to as well.”