Chief Zimmerman retiring BFPD Monday, Cowell the new 61

Bonners Ferry Police Chiefs Brian Zimmerman and Willie Cowell
Bonners Ferry Police Chief Brian Zimmerman and soon to be chief William David “Willie” Cowell

A few years ago, Brian Zimmerman thought he was going on a fishing trip on the first day of his second retirement. He and his wife, Roberta, were planning their move to a home they own in Cocolalla and an easy life of endless fishing, but that was down the road. Today, he was going for kokanee in one of the beautiful Boise Valley Lakes. But as he was packing for the trip, the phone rang.

It was Bonners Ferry City Councilman Rick Alonzo, with sheriff Dave Kramer on hand just in case additional persuasion would be needed. He was calling on behalf of Mayor Dave Sims, Rick said. We need you.

“I couldn’t say no,” Brian said. “It just wasn’t in me. After serving for over 40 years, it just becomes ingrained. When you’re asked, you just say yes.”

Instead of a valley lake or Cocolalla, Brian arrived in Bonners Ferry on a Monday. He met with Mayor Sims, whose main question was “how long can we have you for?”

“Two years, maybe three,” Brian replied. On the very next day, Tuesday, April 17, 2018, he was sworn in as chief of the department where it all began for him in 1981. On Monday, February 26, he’ll retire again, one month shy of six years ago, nearly double what he’d offered Mayor Sims. It ends a remarkable 43-year career as an Idaho peace officer, and as an added bonus, he gets the privilege of appointing a friend who is also building a stellar reputation as an Idaho lawman … one who said with firm conviction not all that long ago that he would never seek the chief’s badge and he’d never accept it if offered.

Every Bonners Ferry resident should shout for joy that he changed his mind.

Brian grew up in the woods of Boundary County and he began logging at an early age. It was the career in which he planned to grow old. But the economy shifted. He and Roberta had a growing family and the ends were beginning to pull too tightly on the means.

He had thought of working in law enforcement often growing up, but said he lacked the self confidence he needed to try. But with the belt growing steadily more tight, the benefits convinced him to find the confidence, and he joined the Bonners Ferry Police Department as a reserve patrol officer in 1981, hired by yet another local Idaho lawman of wide renown, police chief Don Hamilton.

Despite whatever he lacked in confidence, he found he possessed that rare set of qualities requisite to success as a peace officer; an honest respect for those he served, an unwavering belief in the importance of doing the job well, with integrity and honor, an unwavering aversion to those officers who would abuse the trust or dishonor the badge. A natural compassion for those victimized or hurt by others, an empathy for those whose mistakes brought them to grief but zero tolerance for those who chose deliberately to break the law.

In 1982, he became a full-time BFPD patrolman. He and fellow patrol officer Dave Kramer became fast friends and remain so today, starting the county’s dive team, hiking the back country, fishing. Kramer, yet another singular Boundary County lawman whose storied career has earned him a stellar reputation not only in Idaho, but in law enforcement circles across the United States and around the world, went on to fill Don’s big shoes as chief of police and he, too, will be riding off soon into the sunset of retirement.

In 1985, Brian, no longer lacking in self-confidence, quiet of voice and kindly in demeanor but ever ready for those miscreants not quite bright enough to see the steel just beneath the surface, traded his city uniform for that of the Idaho State Police. After graduating the academy, he worked in Kootenai County for three years and came back home when a slot opened for Boundary County resident patrolman.

For the next 17 years he was the face of the ISP in Boundary County, patrolling our highways, visiting school classrooms, representing the highest standards of one of the finest law enforcement agencies anywhere, content to be a corporal, happy to serve in Boundary County, even to retire here.

But thinking about the future, he realized their retirement years would be better if he added some rank so, after years of explaining himself, he finally gave in and tested for sergeant, passed it easily and took a sergeant’s slot in Pocatello. Then, at the persistent insistence of an ISP captain and long-time friend, he tested for and made lieutenant and spent three years in Boise.

He retired a captain in 2012 and became a factory representative for Arctic Cat in hopes it would afford him more time in the backcountry on an ATV or snowmobile. Instead, he was traveling city to city, staying in motels, harried to make the next appointment. Once again, Brian settled down to retire.

It didn’t last a year, and again it was an insistent friend, this one the mayor of Middleton, Idaho, needing help for the people in his city. Brian resisted, to no avail, and ere long the Zimmermans were once again packed and heading south, this time to the monumental task of building a police department from the ground up to protect and serve the 5,770 residents. When he left, he left the growing city an eight man department, which has now grown to ten.

When presented BFPD shield 61, Chief, he was not only coming home to the department where his career in law enforcement began, he was being entrusted to carry on the legacy of a small town served by an inordinate number of legendary Idaho peace officers, each possessed with that rare combination of traits requisite in a good and worthy peace officer that can’t be taught in any classroom, but are instilled over time by family, community, church, school and friends.

He will don his uniform one more time Monday, pull one more shift serving people he loves with public servants held in such high esteem that he once lacked the confidence to even think he might be deserving of a place among them. And before he ends his day and career to tackle a miles-long bucket list, promising this time to never again think there might be places where the pastures are greener, the opportunities greater than here, his home. He looks forward to putting the tools in his sawmill and shop to work, the toys in his garage to play, the fish in each and every North Idaho water larger than a puddle to fright.

He’ll little miss the duties and details of being a peace officer, he said. What he will never forget, he said with solemn and quiet conviction, are the personalities, the many people he met along the way; so many he learned from, looked up to … so many who learned from and looked up to him. And one thing that’s different about this retirement might be what’s been missing all along. One more ceremonial detail, the passing of Badge #61, the conferring of trust. The conveyance of responsibility.

Brian spoke with pride of his six years at the helm, particularly of the men and women who comprise the Bonners Ferry Police Department, each among the best he’s worked with, each the reason behind his successes as chief. But he spoke very little of his own accomplishments. To hear him tell it, you’d think the best thing that happened during his five years and 11 months as chief wasn’t anything he did, but a change of heart by the next Bonners Ferry Police Chief, the man who was and is happy to be a patrol officer and his only ambition to give his best and to be a credit to his department and his community.

“I spoke to Willie about it several years ago, and he said no, but I think he saw the writing on the wall,” Brian said.

Like Brian, William David “Willie” Cowell, who’d moved to Bonners Ferry in 2005 and had sworn in as a police reservist in 2007, thought about a career in law enforcement, having grown up in a family comprised of many who wore the badge; his father, uncles and cousins. But he was doing work he loved and planned to spend a lifetime doing. As with Brian, though, the national economy and his changing circumstances in 2011 made a career as a muleskinner and saddle maker impractical … he and Amanda, whom he’d met in 2010, were getting married. Bonners Ferry Police Chief Rick Alonzo, now mayor and yet another superb North Idaho lawman to have worn 61, swore him in as a full time patrolman in February, 2011.

In the 13 years since, Willie has built an impeccable reputation and proven time and again that he stands among the best of the great lawmen. Unfailingly polite, he is soft spoken and friendly, with one of those broad smiles, if you’re fortunate to see it, that starts out small and then stutters before breaking through to encompass his entire face.

He also has that useful but uncanny hyper awareness that lets him naturally see the subtle signs others miss or overlook … he has very likely turned more routine traffic stops into felony or fugitive arrests than any other North Idaho officer, and conversely, he has very likely turned down the heat in more tense and sensitive situations by seeing and understanding the signs than any other officer in North Idaho, ensuring the best and safest outcome for all involved.

He never aspired to become chief or to move into the administrative end, he said, but having seen how much Brian accomplished as chief, even while pulling more than his share of patrol, made him rethink his position on stepping up and taking on the responsibilities.

“Within a year, Brian had us in reliable vehicles and he had us training more effectively and consistently,” Willy said. “He brought Marty (Ryan, who retired in December) back as assistant chief and was building us closer to where we needed to be on staffing. The little things he did made big improvements all around. I don’t want to see us lose all that we’ve gained.”