Matthew Betzen begins walking a new beat today as Vermillion's police chief.
He replaces Art Mabry, who resigned in January after serving as chief for nearly eight years to begin work as director of South Dakota's 24/7 Sobriety Project.
Captain Chad Passick stepped in as interim chief of the department while the city began its search for Mabry's replacement.
Vermillion's need for a new police chief coincided perfectly with career and family changes being contemplated by Betzen and his wife, Nancy.
Betzen, 45, was raised in Albuquerque, NM, and joined the U.S. Marine Corps after completing high school. After completing his service with the Marines, he began his law enforcement career in the state of Washington.
For the last 20 years, he has served as a police officer in Alaska, on an island called Unalaska. Unalaska is part of the Alaska's Aleutian Islands, and is more commonly known to most people as the home of Dutch Harbor, where the Discovery Channel's �Deadliest Catch� television documentary is filmed.
�Between Washington and Alaska, I spent seven years as a patrol officer,� Betzen said. �In 1995, I was promoted to sergeant, and in 2004 I was promoted to what is known as first sergeant � we don't have lieutenants and captains (in Unalaska); we have a first sergeant who oversees the police, communications and corrections division for the Unalaska Department of Public Safety.
I was first sergeant from 2004 until I retired on July 1,� he said.
Betzen said he and his wife had been considering moving from Alaska back to the lower 48 states for nearly a year.
�We had a convergence of change coming � my youngest child, Noah, graduated from high school and was going off to college, and after June 1, I was eligible to retire after 20 years in law enforcement in Alaska,� he said. �Alaska has a lot of wonderful things going for it, but it is kind of some rough living
�We lived on an island with about 4,500 permanent population and about 4,000 who are in transient. Dutch Harbor is the biggest fishing port in the United States by volume of fish, so basically it's a small village surrounded by a giant work camp,� Betzen said. �It doesn't have a lot of the amenities of civilization; you have to jump on a plane and go 700 miles for $1,000 to go shopping � so my wife said it was time to get back to civilization, and that's what we've been working on for the past year.�
Betzen applied for open positions in Vermillion and in several other law enforcement agencies. Vermillion city officials were the first ones to call him back after receiving his application.
Betzen said he and his wife began researching Vermillion to learn all they could about the community. �We got more and more excited the more we learned,� he said. �The location, the fact that it is a small college town, and when I came out to interview, I arrived here a couple days early, and I talked to a realtor, and went around town and talked to different people, and met with some members of the Lions Club.
�I just got the impression that Vermillion is a wonderful town, almost ideally situated in that it was close enough to decent-sized cities in that you could drive to them, and far enough away in that it is still a little American town where people wave to each other and say 'hi.' There isn't, what I like to call, that pervasive fear that seems to exist in a lot of big cities. That really appeals to us,� he said.
Betzen�s son, Noah will begin his freshman year at the University of Alaska-Fairbanks. Betzen also has a daughter, Sasha, and a granddaughter who live near Richland, WA, and a stepdaughter, Carly, who lives with her husband in Palmer, AK, and works as a radiology technologist.
He believes the term �law enforcement� doesn't adequately describe the role that a police department plays in a community like Vermillion.
�Small communities in general, and really all communities want police officers because they want to have a peaceful environment to live in,� Betzen said. �Law enforcement is more of a tool that we use, though it has come to be the focus of most police work � because it is a big part of the job.
�But I really look at police work as basically public service,� he said. �We fill in the gaps, we're around 24 hours, and we help with all sorts of problems, and many of those problems don't have a solution with a ticket or an arrest.
�I guess my philosophy is one of personal service, and I'd like to pass that on to the officers that work with me. Clearly, a huge part of our job is we get called to deal with violations of the law, but often we get called for other things, and those can be as important or more important that violations of the law in that we are able to help people with whatever problems they may have,� Betzen said.
City Manager John Prescott said the city conducted interviews for the chief�s position in late April, and extended an offer to Betzen in May. He will be paid $70,000 annually. He arrived in Vermillion last Friday, and in the past week he was involved in a whirlwind of meetings as he prepared to begin his new leadership role with the Vermillion Police Department today.
Prescott said the city advertised the police chief�s position in a couple regional and national law enforcement magazines, and attracted approximately a dozen applicants. �We did some phone interviews, and we narrowed the pool to three candidates that we invited in for interviews.�
Those interviews began April 29. The three candidates had a breakfast meeting with some council members and city staff, and were later interviewed by a law enforcement panel made up of police chiefs from around the state, as well as a panel that included city department heads, Prescott said.
�There was a lunch meeting where we had department heads informally talk with the candidates,� he said. �That was a one-on-one (meeting) versus having them all meet together, and that afternoon, we had a community forum, made up of approximately 20 people that we invited to come meet with the candidates.
�Each candidate was given a 45 minute block of time, and they could come in, introduce themselves, and the community member could ask questions of that candidate,� Prescott said. �After the end of that 45 minute amount of time, the candidate left and another candidate would come in. We asked all of the participants to evaluate all of the candidates.�
The community will get a chance to personally meet Chief Betzen next week. An open house to welcome him to the community is scheduled from 4 to 6 p.m. Tuesday, July 19 in the City Hall Council Chambers, and the public is encouraged to attend.