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Meet James Harris, Bethel's new police chief and public safety director

Bethel Police Chief James Harris on July 5, 2024.
MaryCait Dolan
Bethel Police Chief James Harris on July 5, 2024.

Bethel’s new Chief of Police started work on July 1.

James Harris comes to Alaska from New Mexico with 32 years of experience in law enforcement. Before taking the job in Bethel, Harris served as police chief in Belen, New Mexico, beginning in 2019.

Harris will also serve in a newly-created city position: public safety director. He’ll have administrative oversight over both the police and fire departments, a move city officials say they hope addresses recruitment concerns and saves the city money.

Harris spoke with KYUK News Director Sage Smiley on morning show "Coffee at KYUK" on July 5, 2024.

Read a full transcript of the interview below (transcript has been lightly edited for clarity and flow, but transcription errors may remain):

KYUK (Sage Smiley): Good morning.

James Harris: Good morning.

KYUK: It's great to have you here today, Chief Harris. Could you maybe start out just by telling us where you're coming from and who you are?

Harris: Well, I come from New Mexico. I was a chief of police in a small town about 30 or 40 miles south of Albuquerque. That town was Belen, which in Spanish means Bethel. And my understanding is that is our Bethlehem in New Mexico. In Spanish, Belen is Bethlehem. And my understanding is that Bethel is also Bethlehem. So that's kind of an interesting little tidbit. I was a chief of police there for four-and-a-half years. I have about 32 years in total in law enforcement. I have worked just about everything that can be done in law enforcement. I was a SWAT officer, I was a canine officer, I was a narcotics detective. So I've done an awful lot of things, including, at some point I actually did communication, so I was a dispatcher at one point too.

KYUK: What made you want to work in law enforcement, originally back then 32 years ago?

Harris: Well, I just gotten out of the military and I needed a job. And it was actually kind of humorous, because my brother would tell me all the time, when I was a teenager, he would tell me, ‘You need to watch what you're doing. Because one of these days you're going to be a cop.’ And I was like, ‘Nah, I’ll never be a cop.’ And 21 years old, I became a cop. So yeah, it was, at the time I needed a job. And it very quickly grew into this was a passion and a love that I really, really enjoyed doing. So I couldn't see myself doing anything other than that.

KYUK: What is it about policing that draws you in like that?

Harris: I would say that it's probably being able to help people. That's, uh, you know, when we deal with people, we're not dealing with people at their best, we're not dealing with them on their best days. So it's always important for us to get out there and let these people know that we are human beings as well. And we are – it's important for us to be able to go out and talk to people and just let them know that we're part of the community, and we want to be part of the community, and we're there for them through good and bad.

KYUK: That makes sense. So how did you make your way to Bethel, then, you know, you're coming from down south. Bethel is not close. What brings you specifically here?

Harris: Well, specifically here, it was, I saw a job opportunity here. I came out here to visit Bethel, after I had done an interview with the city manager and some other individuals. And it was very eye opening to me. I had been to Alaska before, I had been down around Soldotna. And my wife and I absolutely love Alaska. But when we moved here, or when we came here and saw this place, you know, we were kind of taken aback and you know, it's off the road system. It's kind of a different atmosphere. It's definitely a different culture. But what struck me as most attractive about it were the people. They were genuinely nicer than any other culture of people that I've been around. And they were actually interested in us as individuals. And that struck me as just inviting as could be.

KYUK: So you've been here now about a week. Well, you've been on the job about a week. You've been here in Bethel for a bit longer. What are your first impressions or how has that initial impression of, you know, people being very friendly here in Bethel, how has that changed or deepened or grown?

Harris: Well, it was, you know, it was funny. I went to the post office to get a post office box. And because my wife is still in New Mexico, and we have to take care of some logistical stuff just to get her out here. But I went to the post office, and as I was standing there getting my post office box this lady was standing behind the counter and she was a customer. And she asked me, ‘Are you the new chief of police?’ And I said, ‘Yes, ma'am, I am.’ And she just got so excited. Just so excited. And I was surprised at just how people will approach you like that, you know. So my initial thought process has not changed. I think that the people here are just very friendly and very nice. There's some work to be done, there is some work to be done. I think that the first thing I have to do is I have to learn my officers and learn their strengths and their weaknesses, and how I can strengthen their strengths even more, and how I can fix the weaknesses. But I have spent some time with my officers so far, and I've been out there, and so far I'm pretty impressed with the with the manner in which they do their job, you know. I expect I'm going to expect a great deal from my officers, I'm going to hold them to a very high standard. And I do believe wholeheartedly that we as the police department and public safety in general, we're not there to abuse the public. That's not our our position. But by the same token, we're also not there to be abused by the public. And so there's going to be some challenges to building a rapport and building a bridge between the police department, the fire department, the citizens of Bethel, the city of Bethel. Build those bridges, so that we all come together as a team, do the job the way it should be done.

KYUK: So when you say build that bridge, do you feel like that's something that's lacking right now, and your initial impressions of the police department and the other public safety or city response-type departments?

Harris: Well, I think that, you know, with any, any department, really any department, there's going to be those challenges, there's going to be those gaps in those bridges. And, it's my job to come in and try to fix those gaps. I don't think that there's huge gaps. But I do think that there are some that are there as they are with any department. So yeah, I would have to say that there's definitely going to be some challenges. I think that the District Attorney's Office, the police department, the fire department, all of those entities need to work together to ensure that the citizens of Bethel are getting what they need from their, from their government and from their, from their city officials.

KYUK: In your first few days on the job, you've already spoken to this a little bit, but in your first few days on the job, what are you thinking, ‘Okay, this is my number one priority for change, for updating, for reemphasizing’ as a new leader?

Harris: Well, I'd have to say that my, my primary goal is just to get to know the community and get to know my officers, get to know where their strengths are, and more importantly, where their weaknesses are. Because if I learn how to do that, then I can start working towards fixing those those weaknesses. Right now I have you know, so I showed up here last Wednesday, that's when I arrived here on the boots on the ground. I didn't officially start until July 1, but I went out and I worked with the officers. I have a lot of experience in criminal investigation. So I'm working with the criminal investigators to try to try to pick up the pieces of some of these older cold cases that are out there. And I intend to to start working those angles, but not take away from the from the detectives, the investigators abilities to do what they need to do, but to mentor them and train them and get them to a point where they're comfortable doing this and they're effective doing this without without too much leadership or not, not leadership, but without having to be to be supervised continuously.

KYUK: That oversight.

Harris: Right, yeah.

KYUK: So when you talk about building bridges and building relationships, one thing that some people do criticize – it's not unique to Bethel – but is the two weeks on, two weeks off policing system. What are your opinions on that system?

Harris: So it's new to me. I've never been involved in something like that. I've never had any type of experience with that particular thing. I believe – and it's also not unusual to have to have officers not living in the jurisdiction that they're actually working in. That's not all that unusual. Most of the officers from the town that I was in before, worked in Belen but actually lived in Albuquerque, or Rio Rancho, or some of them as far north as Santa Fe. So it's not really all that unusual. But what is unusual is that you can't, you could at least drive to their house, you know, and you can't do that here. So it's quite a bit different. But it's not all that unusual for them not to live in the jurisdiction and still have, and still have a feeling of ownership of that of that jurisdiction that you're living in, or that you're working in. So honestly, I don't know what I think of it yet. It has, I think it's going to have some drawbacks. I can say one thing that I foresee being a drawback is, especially in investigations, then just getting good and started into an investigation and then being gone for two weeks. That is going to, obviously, be a bit of a drawback. But if I can work with and have an investigator on both sides of that, then they can and they are working well together. They can always pick up the slack on the other end of the investigation. So I think that there's going to be – I don't, I can't see a way around it right now. I really can't, you know, when we only have 6,000 or 7,000 people living in a town, that's a pretty small candidate pool to have officers who actually live in the area. And if we were to change the scheduling, that would be very expensive for the officers themselves. But I'm going to try to start working on some on some things with the city management and see what we can do and what we can figure out that might work more effectively.

KYUK: In addition to being the police chief, you are going to be the new public safety director.

Harris: Correct.

KYUK: What is that looking like so far in your first week on the job?

Harris: So far, I’ve focused primarily with the police department. I have met with the acting fire chief and we're working towards – I will primarily have administrative oversight of the fire department and the police department, so operationally I will not be running into burning buildings, I will not be doing any of that kind of stuff. And hopefully I won't be making too many traffic stops, although I have made a couple since I've been here. And I won't be doing the operational portion of the of the police department. I will have administrative oversight and I will be overall supervisory, so we're still working on the details of exactly what is expected. Unfortunately I haven't had an opportunity to really sit down with the city manager in the city council and discuss exactly what it is they want from me. I have a fairly good idea of what it is. But when Lori [Strickler, acting Bethel City Manager] gets back from her vacation, then we will sit down and we will actually have more of a sit down conversation and talk about exactly what it is they expect from me as the public safety director. But I have no intention of going into the fire department and trying to change everything. Because I'm not a firefighter. I've never been a firefighter. I know public safety and I am certified in critical incidents. I have a lot of certifications that kind of bleed over into the fire area, but I'm not a firefighter. And I'm going to rely heavily on the expertise of those who are firefighters in the administrative areas of firefighting to help me out with that.

KYUK: We have just a couple of minutes left, so I'm going to do a lightning round. Two questions. We'll start with the potential bad, and end on the good. First one is: does anything have you nervous in the coming months, or apprehensive as you're looking forward at this job?

Harris: Nervous… I'm nervous about it all. This was a huge move. This was a life-changing move for me. You know, the one thing that they asked me and when they asked me in the interviews was, ‘Well, how long do you plan to stay here?’ And, you know, I told him, I said, ‘If I'm going to pull the trigger on this, it's going to be I'm taking on a long-term commitment.’ So the biggest thing that's got me nervous is I have my wife who is about 3,000 miles away from me right now. And she's trying to get all of that stuff taken care of so that she can join me here. So there's a lot of logistics that I'm trying to figure out in that I'm trying to maneuver around the job itself. I can do the job. I feel like I don't, I don't have too much. As long as I have a good command staff under me on both levels. That's not going to be a problem. I'm going to be able to do the job, I have no I have no real concerns about that. It's all the other stuff in the personal life that I have to try to figure out, all of the logistics of getting my wife and especially my dogs and my cat down here. But that's probably my biggest concern right now.

KYUK: Flip-side question, and briefly, in like a sentence, what has you most excited?

Harris: What's most exciting? A new challenge.

KYUK: Wonderful. It's been great to talk to you, Chief Harris, thank you very much for coming on 'Coffee [at KYUK].'

Harris: Thank you for having me. I appreciate it.

Sage Smiley is KYUK's news director.