Byron Nelson, who finished a 34-year police career as Sequim Police Chief in 2002, died Sept. 2 in Port Angeles.
Family members say Nelson, 77, died peacefully at the Golden Years Residential Care Home Saturday evening, succumbing to lewy body dementia after battling the disease for several years.
Nelson led the Sequim Police Department from 1996-2002. During his tenure, he focused on modernizing equipment and tactics for the department as well as community policing.
He also led the department in obtaining grants for items such as the Speed Enforcement Trailer and updated and replaced what was an outdated and worn out fleet of police vehicles.
Sheri Crain, the current Sequim Police Chief who worked under Nelson during his tenure, said one of Nelson’s lasting legacies was establishing the Volunteers in Police Service (VIPS) program, along with the department’s K-9 program and providing upgrades in equipment.
“We still take a great deal of pride in …. our uniforms, our K-9 program, our cars, the VIPS program. Everybody else should be jealous of (them).
“Those are the big ones that really stand out as really valuable pieces (from Nelson’s time as chief).”
Crain said VIPS, which now boasts 26 community volunteers, started with a group of nine individuals, each of whom wound up serving the department for at least a decade.
“It’s a fabulous program,” Crain said.
Nelson also was instrumental in introducing a no-hunting ordinance in the city when locals began having problems with migrations of Sequim’s Roosevelt elk herd, and with the creation of the Sequim Skate Park.
Nelson also was involved in the community, singing with a barbershop quartet and other groups.
“This was the tail-end of his career,” Crain said. “I think he enjoyed rubbing elbows back with the line staff. I think he enjoyed his time here.”
Sgt. Dave Campbell was Nelson’s first hire and wound up helping lead the new K-9 unit with K-9 officer Huey.
“He kind of modernized our department,” Campbell said of Nelson.
“He was a big proponent of community-oriented policing (and) he left a large footprint on our department. Nothing that he started has really died down.”
Nelson will be interred at the Tahoma National Cemetery in Kent. A celebration of life service will be held at the Azusa Senior Center (Azusa, Calif.) on Oct. 7.
Family members ask that donations in lieu of flowers be made to the Alzheimer’s Association at www.alz.org.
Nelson, who grew up in Wisconsin Rapids, Wis., is survived by his wife Barbara, of Sequim. The pair met in 1958, wed in 1959 and enjoyed 58 years of marriage at the time of his passing. They raised three sons, primarily in Covina, Calif.
Nelson also is survived by son Lt. Ronald Nelson of Windsor, Calif.; son Daniel of Moreno Valley, Calif.; son Chris Nelson of San Diego, Calif.; sister Naomi Bradford of Saugus, Calif.; seven grandchildren five great grandchildren, and many nieces and nephews.
“It was really, really upsetting — the worst day I’ve had in a while, actually for a lot of us,” Campbell said of hearing about the chief’s death. “But a lot of good memories. He was a great chief. Definitely and end of an era.”
Out of retirement
The Sequim chief position came after Nelson’s first retirement, son Ronald Nelson noted. After a 27-year stint with the Azusa Police Department, he retired as police chief in 1995. Nelson and his wife Barbara then moved to Sequim.
“He loved the beauty of the Olympic Peninsula, and the fact that the winter season was not as harsh as Wisconsin,” Ron Nelson wrote.
During his first year in Sequim, Nelson learned that the Sequim Police Chief Russ Barnes was leaving the position and that city leaders were considering disbanding the department and contracting with the Clallam County Sheriff’s Department for policing services, Ron Nelson recalled.
The retired chief then contacted Sequim’s city manager and expressed his views over lunch, and was subsequently offered the Sequim police chief position. Nelson wanted to focus on his hobbies of horse riding, woodworking, fishing, and camping, Ron Nelson recalled, so he initially turned the job down.
Ultimately he took the position on an interim basis, and accepted the permanent job months later. Nelson told the city council in 1997 he would stay on for two more years, but he didn’t leave the position until 2002.
He retired that year at age 63, abdicating the job to Ken Burge.
“There was a lot of hard work, but people were teaching me, training me,” Nelson said in 2002, soon after announcing his (second) retirement. “I’ve had the opportunity to do a ton of things in and outside of law enforcement. It’s been an exciting career.”
He once described the job of a police officer as sheer boredom, followed by moments of absolute panic.
“We’re expected to know everything about everything — that’s an incredible responsibility,” he said. “We deal with life and death every day. It’s the adrenaline that kills us.”
Nelson began his career in July 1968 with the Azusa Police Department. He was promoted to sergeant in 1973, lieutenant in 1977, captain in 1988, and was selected as the department’s chief in 1990. During his career, he worked as a patrol officer and sergeant, juvenile detective and school resource officer at Azusa High School, property crimes detective and detective sergeant. With the Azusa department, he established both a bicycle patrol unit and gang enforcement team, spearheaded an effort to get a new police facility and doubled as city administrator for a portion of his time there.
“I never liked California, though,” Nelson said in 2002. The heat, smog and traffic were awful, he says. “I used to sit two, two-and-a-half hours on a freeway to get to a meeting in Los Angeles. That’s no way to live.” But he worked in southern California because that’s where the money was. Police work was better than his previous jobs.
Ron Nelson said his father enjoyed working with the community’s younger residents.
“He felt strongly that the hopes and future of a community lie within its youth,” Ron Nelson wrote.
Prior to his law enforcement career, Nelson worked in the aerospace industry in Southern California. He had attended North Hollywood High School and enlisted in the United States Army in 1958. He was trained as a tank driver and Howitzer operator and was stationed in Germany. He earned a Bachelor’s of Science degree in Criminal Justice from California State University-Los Angeles in 1976.
Nelson’s family members said he became known as “The Chief” at Golden Years, and that he received “amazing, compassionate care” from staff at Golden Years and Assured Hospice.
“True to his nature, Chief Nelson never stopped trying to help people and was known in the facility for always looking out for the other residents,” Ron Nelson wrote.