Deputy Chief Paul Burkart will be the new chief of the Nelson Police Department starting Jan. 29, following the retirement of current chief Wayne Holland.
Burkart, a 20 year veteran of police work, has risen through the ranks during his 15 years in Nelson, and says his promotion to chief is the result of Holland deciding, when he arrived here five years ago, that the next chief should be groomed from within the ranks.
“It made sense for us to do that,” Burkart says. “I have been 15 years on the job here, and will start my role as chief knowing the businesses, the schools, the organizations, and the people of the community. It is an absolute advantage.”
At the city council reception Monday at which she announced Burkart’s new job, Mayor and Nelson Police Board chair Deb Kozak said: “In my opinion, Paul was the perfect selection to take on this challenging role, given his tenure with this organization, his love of this department and the community, and his demonstrated knowledge, skills, and abilities.”
Burkart and his wife Eve, a clinical practice educator at Kootenay Lake Hospital, moved here from big-city policing in Calgary, where he worked in several specialized units. Although he found that work exciting, he wanted to raise his children in a small town. It’s the environment he likes best: Burkart grew up in Fort St. John.
Burkart’s daughters, Julia, 15, and Kyra, 17, both students at L.V. Rogers, were young children when they moved here.
“We have enjoyed every minute of being here,” Burkart says, speaking enthusiastically about the variety of activities his daughters have enjoyed in Nelson. Burkart has served as treasurer of Nelson Youth Soccer, and has been a house and rep coach for the past 11 seasons.
Burkart has a bachelor of social science degree in criminology and French, and a master’s in labour relations with majors in human resources and labour law. He says that’s a useful combination.
“Police departments are a big businesses,” he says. “The Calgary department has 2,500 members, and even here, with volunteers, there are 55 people. So my human resources and labour law background is valuable.”
A people person
Asked what he likes most about police work, Burkart said, “I am a people person. I love dealing with the community. I like making a difference. If a person comes in and has a concern, I am willing to sit down right there and help them out.”
“When I coach girls’ soccer, it is not about just learning how to kick a ball. It is about working as a team, about being good people.”
He says that in the same way, policing should not just be about responding to a crime, and that ideally it involves finding a way for that crime to not happen again, and delving into the social issues that might have caused it.
“Eighty per cent of what we do is not in the crime stats. Working with community organizations, that’s what I enjoy.”
Burkart taught the Drug Abuse Resistance Education (DARE) program in the schools for many years, but there was a hiatus because it was too expensive to send officers away for the two-week training course, but now the program is back as a result of a collaboration with the RCMP to bring DARE training here.
The challenges of police work
Asked about the challenges of police work, Burkart says “There is a lot of stress and shift work is hard. Some officers work 50 per cent of their shifts at night. The types of calls are very rarely pleasant. It is hard for us to go out and arrest somebody who has a family or talk to somebody after they lost a loved one after an accident. And we are under scrutiny. Every minute someone is watching what you are doing. You can go into a situation where both sides of a disagreement can disagree with what you have done. We spend hours investigating things and finding out later they were not an issue, and we spend a lot of time defending our actions.
“You have to be a jack of all trades, physically fit, able to take care of yourself, a good communicator, and have a strong legal mind.”
Coming soon: a beat officer on Baker
Burkart says the most significant change under his watch will be the restoration of an officer to walk the downtown beat. To fund that position the department will not hire a replacement for Burkart’s current deputy position. He says it will be done on a trial basis.
“We want to put more focus on the street by taking away some of the administrative part, which is hard, but we are going to try it. We have suffered from not having enough people on the street, somebody walking down Baker, tackling some of the drug dealing and other criminal activity.”
Policing and mental health
Burkart says he supports, and is involved in, the street culture initiative, a large group of Nelson organizations trying to get a big-picture handle on policing and mental health in Nelson.
There has been much talk and media coverage about policing and mental health in Nelson over the past year since the police asked the city for two new officers and an administrative staff person and council refused. That request has gone to council again this year, and will be decided in the spring.
“We are asking for more manpower and with that comes a cost,” Burkart says. “The cost of policing is an issue and we understand that, and we know what we are asking for is going to require funding. But it is necessary, so we are going to work with the police board and the council to be sure that the funding required is available, in the least painful for the city as possible.”