Bethel’s police department may have a new chief, but the same problems of not having enough people to police a city of 6,400 remain. Police Chief Richard Simmons arrived a few months ago after years in Texas with the Fort Worth Police Department. He looks at Bethel and sees a small town with big city problems.
“You got to look at the call volume. You got to look at the nature of the town itself,” said Simmons. “Cute town of Bethel, here, has big city problems. The reason for that is we are the big city out here in the Y-K Delta. We see substance abuse, and the homeless problems, and the other social issues that come up with being the hub.”
On paper Simmons has a staff of 16 people, but because of unfilled positions, he actually only has 11 working in the department. Next month, unless he gets new people on board, he will have one fewer. He said that is why there aren’t Bethel police at the airport enforcing the city’s COVID-19 mandates for testing or wearing masks.
“We have enough people to barely keep two people on the street in any given time,” said Simmons. “And when you’re talking between 30 and 40 calls a day for service for the police officers in this town, I’m just not going to lie to anybody and say we have extra people sitting around to send out to the airport.”
Simmons said that part of the problem is that many of Bethel’s police don’t live in Bethel. So, when their weeks on the work schedule are done, they fly home, and that means there is no backup for those on duty.
“If it’s something really crazy, we end up waking up the two guys that are sleeping that worked the night shift. And between the four of them and me, we figure it out. So, you know, I don’t want it to be alarmist to anybody, but I’ve got to position resources where they are most needed, and I have to take the calls that are coming in that are immediate threats to the people’s property or their lives.”
Simmons has a lot of ideas for helping recruit more officers. He wants to use unspent budget items to pay for relocating staff to Bethel. That, along with high pay, may help recruit officers. He also wants to use various programs to get local youth working in the force, and even maybe get some interns on board so Bethel can help grow its own police staff. He hopes to build the staff needed to do effective investigations and other more complex policing tasks.
Bethel is not the only police force facing recruitment problems. Simmons said that the spate of stories having to do with police brutality have made it more difficult for police departments all across the nation to recruit new people for law enforcement.