Whitefish Police Department Assistant Chief Bridger Kelch has covered a lot of ground in his career.
In the Army, he was stationed in Kitzingen, Germany, and later Bosnia during the Bosnian conflict. Later he worked a fast-paced job on a drug suppression team in Fort Sill, Oklahoma. But now, he said, he prefers the quieter side of things back home in Whitefish.
“Law enforcement can be, at times, an adrenaline rush, but the majority of it is helping people,” he said. “Every day is different. No day, no call is the same.”
Kelch recently took over in his new role as assistant chief after Mike Ferda retired at the end of the year.
Born and raised in Whitefish, Kelch’s only time away from home was while he served in the Army and worked in Oklahoma. He grew up knowing most of the officers in town, so it only seemed natural to follow in their steps and protect his hometown.
“Whitefish is a fun town. Every Friday and Saturday night is like a holiday, and we have a great community. Even though we have a lot of visitors and they get pretty rowdy, we have a great community that supports one another. It’s a safe community,” he said.
“For the majority of us it’s a nice, quiet town that takes care of each other. I like that. It’s always been that way,” he added.
During his 16 years on the force, Kelch has seen some changes, like a big increase in police calls after cellphone use became more widespread.
However, more communication and more calls are a plus, he said.
“It’s been a huge change. We get just a huge amount more calls than we used to because of the ease of somebody picking up their cellphone and calling the police,” he said. “Which is a good thing, having that involvement is important.”
Kelch likens policing to a different form of customer care, something he takes very seriously. Every call or theft report is followed up on, and no matter what the call, he’s ready to have an officer hop in a squad car and check things out.
It’s that open communication that maintains a good relationship between the law and the public in Whitefish, he said.
“A lot of people don’t see policing and enforcing the law and customer service in the same area, but it is,” he said. “Our customer is not always right, but they’re still our customer and we have to treat them appropriately. We’re public servants and we serve our community.”
One issue that does concern Kelch is drug use in the Flathead Valley and across the state, so much so that he called it “the most challenging thing that law enforcement faces” currently.
“It has plagued everything we do. Our thefts are because of the drug addictions — opioid addictions. It all revolves around this addiction, and once they’re hooked all they care about is filling that void and they’ll do anything to get the next high. It affects everything we do,” he said. “What’s the answer? That’s the big question.”
Education in the schools has been a key to getting the message about dangerous drug use out early. Prior to serving as patrol lieutenant and now assistant chief, Kelch was also the first school resource officer for the department
It was a role Kelch says he enjoyed because it was a chance to learn how to be active and involved within the schools and the community as a whole. With community support, he said, the law and public can work together to face any problem.
“We have a good group of police officers, the community supports us, which is huge. We’ll have our differences and our challenges ahead of us, but I think if we’re open and communicate well we can accomplish anything,” he said.
When he’s not in his office or out on patrol, Kelch said he enjoys spending time outdoors, namely fly fishing with his wife, Stacy, and their two children.
Being able to enjoy time with his family is a constant reminder of why he does the job in the first place.
“I enjoy every second I have with them, and that’s what it’s all about,” he said. “That’s why we live here, to enjoy the outdoors and the environment we have and raise our kids in a safe community.”