Last night, Bethel’s city council selected Burke Waldron to serve as the town’s Chief of Police. It’s a job that Waldron’s been doing on an interim basis for months now. As the Bethel Police Department’s acting chief, he has overseen homicide investigations and staffing issues in a department that is stretched thin.
On Tuesday, KYUK’s Teresa Cotsirilos sat down with Waldron to discuss his work in town so far, and the challenges he sees ahead. Please note that this interview has been condensed for time:
KYUK: Why have you decided to stay here in Bethel?
WALDRON: It's a good question. I think the police department as a whole, we're making progress. It's an ongoing challenge and I'm engaged, and so that just makes it enjoyable for me.
KYUK: What are some of the challenges you're hoping to tackle in town?
WALDRON: Well, there's going to be ongoing community issues with alcohol, and it seems to me we have a growing heroin problem in Bethel. So those are going to be continued challenges for us. Staffing is a continued challenge for us. We're having to do more with less. We're doing some things, not just in Bethel, but statewide, trying to make it [the job] more attractive. You know, with a week on, a week off, two weeks on, two weeks off, those things are helping. But it's certainly not a fix-all.
KYUK: Let's talk about two weeks on, two weeks off for a moment. Is that a policy that you support?
WALDRON: Yes. I mean, I have some concerns with it, but I just don't think, particularly in rural Alaska, we're going to be able to compete without offering it.
KYUK: What makes it a less than ideal program? It doesn't sound like your first choice.
WALDRON: Well, my first choice is to have appropriate staffing levels. So I guess it is kind of my first choice. I have some concerns about the travel and availability of people. When we have some kind of major catastrophic event, if I have several people out of town because they're on their two weeks off, they're not available to me or whatever the community needs are there.
In a perfect world for me, I would have more officers that were involved in the community, having kids grow up in the school system, coaching sports, and doing those kinds of things. But again, the most important thing is having appropriate staffing levels.
KYUK: Speaking of staffing, there's been a couple of notable cases during your tenure as police chief here so far, and one of them is the incident with Officer Oulton, who was recently reinstated. Just to remind our listeners what the allegations were, Officer Oulton was accused of hitting his girlfriend, right?
WALDRON: There was an accusation of domestic assault, yes.
KYUK: Could you talk a little bit about that reinstatement process?
WALDRON: There was a criminal investigation that was conducted, and on the details of that we did an administrative investigation into it. The evidence pointed towards the event not happening. So you know, the appropriate and right thing to do is put him back to work.
KYUK: Do you think that the allegations against Officer Oulton impacted the perception of the BPD in any way?
WALDRON: I'm sure it did for some people.
KYUK: And did you have any hesitation about reinstating Officer Oulton?
WALDRON: I don't know if hesitation is the right word. I certainly gave it full consideration, including the community's perception. But you know, with the direction that the investigation led it was just the right thing to do. He had already been victimized enough. I didn't want to victimize him even more.
KYUK: Are there any other cases or incidents that stand out to you from your time in Bethel so far, which really shifted how you thought about the job?
WALDRON: I certainly have noticed a change in my attitude compared to when I was doing this 25 years ago. I'm a softy compared to what I used to be, especially with kids. We deal with kids on a daily basis, and unfortunately oftentimes in very tragic circumstances. And it's not just me, it's all of us at the police department. It just pulls on our heartstrings, the circumstances in which we unfortunately have to come across and deal with kids.
KYUK: One of the cases you've worked that first comes to mind for me is the homicide of Marie Lupie, which occurred, I believe, on your first day in town.
WALDRON: Yeah. I hadn’t been in town for 15 hours or something.
KYUK: What do you remember about that day?
WALDRON: I was certainly thinking I was going to be in for a wild ride. You know, thankfully we haven't had too many days like that since, but the community has some challenges with violence and alcohol and I certainly don't know all the answers.