Addressing priority public safety issues with meaningful, strategic steps

Challenges are recruiting and retaining officers, not lack of funding

By members of the Bellingham City Council Public Safety Committee

(Article originally appeared in Salish Current, December 2, 2022)

On November 14, 2022, the Bellingham City Council was asked to vote on a budget amendment to create four additional full-time positions for the Bellingham Police Department, on top of the four proposed police positions in the Mayor’s preliminary 2023-2024 budget. The Council rejected the proposal with a majority vote. We write today as members of the Public Safety Committee of the Bellingham City Council, a Council that has consistently identified public safety as a top City priority. While we can’t speak for other council members, an explanation is necessary to help the community understand some underlying issues influencing that vote.

Public safety is the number one priority for every council in every city in our country and challenges with staffing public safety services are seen nationwide. How public safety services are delivered in Bellingham is the job of the administrative branch of government, in our case the Mayor’s Office. The council member’s proposed amendment to the Mayor’s budget proposal regarding police staffing did not address the fundamental issues affecting public safety in Bellingham.

To be clear, we are not facing a budgetary crisis in our City or a lack of budget authority to hire police officers. What we are facing is a challenge with recruitment and retention. Far fewer people are choosing law enforcement careers than in past years, and that, coupled with an increase in retirements also being felt nationwide, is affecting the City’s ability to maintain a fully staffed police force.

In the 1990s, former US President Bill Clinton ran his presidential campaign with public safety as a key plank in his platform, promising to put 100,000 more cops on the streets across America. The resulting hiring wave helped create an additional problem today. Police officers hired as part of that funding wave are now eligible for retirement and many law enforcement personnel choose to retire as soon as they are eligible.

Currently our Police Department has 14 vacant officer positions, which represents about 12% of the 113 officers who respond to service calls and investigate crimes. Currently 27 officers are technically eligible to retire next year; the City has received notice from 4 who say they will retire in 2023.

Police Department understaffing has a variety of detrimental impacts, some of which community members have let us know they are feeling. Responding to 911 calls is a priority above all else, and therefore patrol units must be adequately staffed before other special units such as downtown bike patrol and community outreach programs, which have been suspended.

With a lower number of patrol staff on shift, higher priority calls must be addressed before lower priority calls, such as property crimes, sometimes leaving callers waiting hours for a response. Police officers often work overtime, which is a costly way to address low staffing and leads to an increased risk of burnout and stress.

Creating more vacant positions does nothing to solve these problems. We believe the approach to this problem must come from a more strategic perspective and the proposed budget amendment did not address that. Addressing barriers to recruiting qualified individuals and addressing retirement issues takes creative, multi-faceted solutions, many of which are underway.

We underscore the importance of reinstating our specialty units – like behavioral health officers, neighborhood police officers and downtown bike patrols, which will help us return to the successful community policing model we have had in the past. These types of programs, our community policing model, and our extensive police officer training programs have made our Bellingham Police Department unique. We need to get back to these benchmarks to maintain the high standards for which our department is noted and our community expects.

This is only part of the equation. Hiring officers alone does not fully address strengthening Bellingham’s public safety net. We recently implemented programs to better address root issues for those who are frequent users of first responder resources: Ground level Response and Coordinated Engagement (GRACE) and Law Enforcement Assistance and Diversion (LEAD). These programs, along with the upcoming Alternate Response Team (ART) that will help respond to behavioral health 911 calls, all impact 911 call volume, help reduce jail bookings, and help increase public safety. We recognize these programs by themselves are not replacements for law enforcement, however, they are important additions to the fuller picture of behavioral health issues our officers report comprise most of their calls.

We believe in a strategic response to the core issues of recruitment and retention, through a plan to fully hire the next generation of Bellingham police officers; to fill the vacancies we currently have and get ahead of impending retirements. We support doing this important work with budget allocations that accurately fund solutions that fit the problem.

Our vote on this budget item reflected our seeing the broader issues affecting our Police Department and understanding those are the issues we need to solve in meaningful ways. 

Public Safety Committee 2022, Bellingham City Council

Dan Hammill, Chair, 3rd Ward
Hollie Huthman, 2nd Ward
Skip Williams, 1st Ward