Bethel City Council Candidates Weigh In On Bethel Police Department
On Sept. 21, KYUK hosted its annual Bethel City Council candidates forum. It was a chance for the candidates to present their priorities and respond to questions important to Bethel ahead of the Oct. 5 election. The hot button issue during the forum was Bethel's police force.
The Bethel Police Department could soon lose over a third of its officers after the city’s new vaccine policy takes effect. Under the policy, all City of Bethel employees must either receive their first COVID-19 vaccine dose by Sept. 27, get an exemption, or get fired. Nearly half the police force is unvaccinated and lives out of town, flying into Bethel to work a two-weeks-on, two-weeks-off schedule. Having a fully staffed police force has been a long-term goal of city leadership and consistently comes up during city council meetings.
The candidates at the forum each voiced their ideas and concerns around issues of police retention and how policing works in Bethel.
The six candidates at the forum vying for four, two-year seats were incumbents Mark Springer and Conrad “CJ” McCormick, as well as Eric Whitney, who last sat on the council in 2013. Newcomers Jared Karr, Jess Schroeder, and Mary “Beth” Hessler are also running.
Schroeder said that the city wouldn’t currently have the issue of officer retention if it had not mandated vaccines. Five of Bethel’s 14 officers could be fired on Sept. 27 if they do not get vaccinated against COVID-19. But those officers live out of town, and Schroeder also said that the city should hire officers looking to become active community members.
"Not many of them become citizens of Bethel. It's a challenge between recruitment and having the police officers that we need, and then actually having them live here and become a part of our community," said Schroeder.
Karr, who used to be a Bethel police officer, said that one of the biggest issues with police retention is burnout due to what he said is a high crime rate in Bethel. Karr said that the city needs to "aggressively recruit and replace officers." He added that police should have a bigger presence around town.
"The most basic thing an officer can do: be visible. I think that the the presence of police officers in town has kind of decreased slightly, and it's very hard to have just a reactive police force. They need to be more proactive," said Karr.
Former city councilmember Whitney said that he agreed with Karr, that police should be more proactive. He also said that they should be more "respectful." He said to have better hiring and retention rates, the city needs to look at what it pays officers.
"We may have to review what we are offering police department salaries. We've got to be rewarding those people who are here working for us and treating them well," said Whitney.
Incumbent candidate Springer said that Bethel’s tribe, the Orurtsararmiut Native Council, should get village police officers to work alongside the city police department. Some villages in the Y-K Delta have village police officers, but Bethel does not. Springer also said that there are ways other than policing to address some crimes.
"A lot of the crime, the violence in Bethel, is driven by substance abuse. There are opportunities to deal with those issues, you know, in root-cause ways," said Springer.
McCormick, also an incumbent and the youngest candidate at age 23, agreed with Springer. He added that Bethel should strive for more community policing. That’s a method of policing that has officers developing close relationships with the communities in which they work.
"Community policing. I think that might be something to do. I really like Mark Springer's idea of involving the tribe," said McCormick.
And finally, candidate Hessler cited Bethel Police Chief Richard Simmons as one of her local political role models. She said "we need to listen more closely to officers."
"I also think a lot of Chief Simmons at the police department. He has a positive attitude, and the ability to look to the future and how to go forward no matter what. We need to support them. Listen to them. Have a conversation, have a serious discussion," said Hessler.
The Bethel municipal election is Oct. 5; early voting has already begun. The six candidates are vying for four spots. You can click this link to listen to the entire replay of the Bethel candidate forum in English.