Paul Burkart is getting used to life without a badge.
He’s sleeping more, and putting an overdue focus on his health. The requests for his time began as soon as he retired last month from the Nelson Police Department, but at the end of a 26-year career Burkart admits he needs a long break.
“A really good expression that one of the officers told me one day, he said, ‘You really don’t understand how heavy that uniform is until you take it off.’”
Burkart bowed out after serving 21 years with the department, and for the last five years as the city’s municipal police chief.
When Burkart took over in January 2016, the department was just emerging from a scandal that saw one of its officers, Drew Turner, found guilty of assault after fellow members testified against him.
But there were no controversies under Burkart. Instead, his tenure was characterized by a fruitful relationship between the department and Nelson’s social services, a move away from possession enforcement in favour of trafficking investigations and the re-establishment of a downtown beat cop position.
Burkart’s career began in 1995 with the Calgary Police Service, where he worked first on patrol before advancing up the ranks to working special investigations.
In 2000 Burkart and his wife Eve decided Calgary wasn’t the best place to raise their two young daughters Julia and Kyra. Burkart was ambitious in his career, but opted to take a job at Nelson’s department for the good of his family.
Over two decades later, he has no regrets. Both of his daughters went on to star on local soccer teams, which Burkart coached to provincial titles.
“No matter what the career would have done, it still would have been the best decision I ever made to bring them out here,” he says. “They just thrived in this place.”
They weren’t the only ones to thrive.
Burkart was promoted to inspector in 2013, and served as Chief Wayne Holland’s second in command. When the promotion was announced, Holland suggested Burkart would eventually be his successor.
Three years later Holland’s prediction came true.
Burkart moved to re-establish a downtown beat cop position, which was filled and continues to be served by Const. Shawn Zukowski, and hired LVR grad and then 24-year-old Lauren Mirva to replace Turner.
He also made an effort to work with the city’s social services on homelessness and the then-burgeoning toxic drug supply crisis. Burkart supported the creation of the Nelson Street Outreach team, and helped create the Nelson Fentanyl Task Force in 2017.
That has led to police ending first responses to overdoses, because Burkart believed fear of law enforcement was keeping residents from calling for help. He now thinks the decision for his members to step aside has saved lives.
“The one thing I really learned since taking this job on is that not one group is going to be able to deal with these issues on our own,” says Burkart.
“We’re not going to be able to deal with homelessness and poverty and mental illness and substance use. Does enforcement have a place in that? Yeah, absolutely. … But at a street level, it’s not a police issue. It’s a community health issue and it’s got to be treated as such.”
The department meanwhile has had its own successes.
Statistics Canada’s latest crime report showed the Nelson Police Department had the highest weighted clearance rate — which measures the number of cases resolved either by an approved charge or a resolution that doesn’t end in court — of the 11 municipal forces in the province in 2019.
One of those cases was Nelson’s first attempted murder in at least a decade. Burkart said the department typically cedes authority to RCMP’s major crimes unit for such cases, but after Fiona Coyle stabbed two people in September 2019 the case was investigated by the department.
“I’ve always appreciated the partnership we have with the RCMP, but the reality is we did those ourselves, and our members just from the first time they arrived on scene to the time that that was submitted to Crown for court purposes, did it just an amazing job,” he says.
But it was his work as a diplomat with the community that Burkart is most proud of.
He jokes now about routine trips to the grocery store that lasted longer than they should have because waiting in each aisle was a new person wanting a word with their police chief.
His interest in talking out issues face to face was apparent last June when Burkart met with about 150 residents to discuss race and law enforcement during the height of the Black Lives Matter protests.
But it also came about in quieter moments, one of which ended with a gesture of good will toward the city’s LGBTQ2S community.
In 2015, three young women were caught painting a crosswalk near the department headquarters on Stanley Street in support of Kootenay Pride.
The only problem was they didn’t have permission, and were caught with spray paint in the middle of the night by an off-duty officer.
Instead of reprimanding them, Burkart called then Mayor Deb Kozak and asked for the city’s blessing to paint the crosswalk. After it was given, Burkart and his daughters helped paint the crosswalk into a rainbow.
It’s a tradition he has continued to take part in annually. When it occurs again this summer, Burkart says he will consider it his last act as police chief.
“To me,” he says, “that’s making an impact.”
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