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Bethel hires new chief of police

James Harris was appointed as the chief of police for the City of Bethel on May 14, 2024.
Courtesy of James Harris
James Harris was appointed as the chief of police for the City of Bethel on May 14, 2024.

At its May 14 meeting, Bethel City Council appointed James Harris the new Bethel Chief of Police. He is scheduled to begin on July 1.

Harris spoke to KYUK in early May, prior to his hiring, while on a five-day visit to Bethel.

“I've met with a lot of a lot of individuals, including the school superintendent, and I've met with the district attorney's office, and I think that we have a real strong beginning towards having a true working relationship and a partnership,” Harris said. “Bringing all the stakeholders together is my primary goal.”

Harris has 32 years of experience in law enforcement, and has served as the chief of police in Belen, New Mexico, since 2019. According to his resume, Harris has worked in a wide range of policing roles with the Valencia County Sheriff’s Office in New Mexico. He has also served as a deputy sheriff in Benton, Louisiana, as a park ranger, and as a correctional officer in both New Mexico and Louisiana.

Harris’s hiring comes four and a half months after the resignation of Bethel’s former chief of police, Leonard Hicks, who said at the time of his departure at the end of 2023: “there’s just not much more I can do.”

Harris said that he is well aware of the pattern of police chief turnover in Bethel.

“I did research the fact that the other chiefs of police have left and some of the reasons why they've left,” Harris said. “Anytime that I am going to jump into something like this, I do a lot of research on it.”

Bethel Police Lieutenant Christopher Wigner served as acting chief prior to Harris’s hiring.

Harris will head a department grappling with multiple active death investigations, as well as what former chief Hicks described as an increase in reported meth usage and opioid overdoses in the community.

Harris said that this will be his first time working with a department completely staffed by officers who work two week on, two week off schedules. Just three of the officers that currently staff the department reside full-time in Bethel.

Harris said that he already has multiple ideas for how to improve the police department, including encouraging officers to take time to get to know people in the community.

“If they are vested in the community that they're serving, then the community they're serving is going to feel more at home and more at ease talking with them about issues,” Harris said.

Harris said that he intends to establish a police advisory committee appointed by the Bethel City Council that can bring issues of concern directly to his desk. He said that he also wants to establish regular town hall meetings that provide a chance for the community to engage with local and state public safety officials and the district attorney’s office.

“I will try to ensure that we are as transparent as possible. Now, obviously, there are some things that in investigations, we have to consider the integrity of the investigation,” Harris said. “But if I can give information, I will give information.”

According to Bethel city officials, Harris will have expanded duties that include administrative oversight of both the police and fire departments. The city said that the shift is intended to address recruitment concerns, support career growth, and save the city money.

This move comes after the departure of former Bethel Fire Chief Daron Solesbee in May. Solesbee took a position with the University Fire Department in Fairbanks.

New public safety director position

Bethel Human Resources Director Laura Cloward explained to the Bethel City Council on May 14 that in addition to being chief of police, Harris will also be Bethel’s public safety director. To do this, the city will need to alter its municipal code regarding the way it administers the fire department.

“It's not something completely novel,” Cloward said. “Outside in the lower 48 there are definitely communities who have a single public safety point of contact.”

In the absence of a fire chief, the city said day-to-day operations of the Bethel Fire Department will be handled by the current fire captain for the time being.

Cloward said that the details of the new public safety director position are still being ironed out, but that she is confident Harris is the right pick for the job.

“In terms of his background, he has emergency operations experience, and that is one of the components of the fire chief position. So we know he's going to be able to backfill that,” Cloward said. “Chief Harris did say if we need and want him to get additional certifications and training within the fire side of things, he's completely open to that. He's very open to helping us work to develop this position.”

The City of Bethel received nine applications for police chief, and four candidates were interviewed for the position.

Harris will earn an annual salary of $140,000, plus health insurance and retirement benefits, and has been hired as a permanent employee for the non-union position.

Evan Erickson is a reporter at KYUK who has previously worked as a copy editor, audio engineer and freelance journalist.
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