Racial Equity and Justice

After recent tragic and often deadly shootings of people of color by law enforcement in a number of cities, and rapidly growing awareness of the persistence of racism, there is heightened attention to the need to root out racism in public institutions. Changes planned or enacted locally include public safety programs that respond to emergency calls when police response is unnecessary; reform of police procedures and training; restructuring of judicial practices to reduce bias and unwarranted incarceration; and expansion of programs that provide treatment or upstream solutions to social problems – including mental health and substance use disorder treatment, and services for youth.

Antiracism and Public Accountability

In 2020, members of the Bellingham City Council participated in a Listening Series on Race and Justice. Community participants identified a need for continued antiracism work, improved police accountability, creation of alternatives to police response, and expansion of social services and housing to meet the needs of the community. The City Council discussed the content of the forums and needed next steps at Council meetings on August 24, 2020 and September 14, 2020.

As a first step in improving public accountability, the City of Bellingham worked with the Whatcom Dispute Resolution Center to create a “Safe Spaces“ program where community members can make a complaint regarding the City of Bellingham’s services or their experience interacting with City employees. On September 27, 2021 the City Council passed a Resolution Affirming that Racism is a Public Health Crisis. Whatcom County passed a similar resolution.

Civilian Oversight of Law Enforcement

The Council is working with the Mayor’s office to strengthen civilian oversight of law enforcement. As currently conceived, a new board would review use of force and other incidents of concern to determine whether such incidents were thoroughly and fairly investigated. A board may also review patterns of police encounters to identify where policies and practices should be changed.

Whatcom County Racial Equity Commission

Both the City of Bellingham and Whatcom County are supporting a community-led effort to create a new Whatcom County Racial Equity Commission. A new commission would work to involve and educate the public and to improve racial equity in both public and private institutions in the county. A framework for the new commission was brought before the City and County Councils at the end of 2021.

Public Safety Alternative Response Systems

Police departments nationwide are tasked with responding to situations they are neither fully trained for nor have the tools to resolve, including encounters with individuals experiencing a mental health episode or a substance use crisis, and those who have unmanaged medical needs. An overreliance on policing in these situations can lead to bad outcomes, including escalation to deadly force and unnecessary incarceration. Bellingham is working with Whatcom County to develop an alternative response program for a portion of emergency calls with specially equipped vans staffed by individuals trained in mental health and substance use response, and the treatment of subacute health care needs.

The County Prosecutor has created a new Law Enforcement Assisted Diversion (LEAD) program to provide an alternate pathway for those who could otherwise end up in jail for low-level crimes. A Ground Level Response and Coordinated Engagement (GRACE) program connects people who are frequent users of emergency and health care services, and who have frequent contact with law enforcement, to appropriate services. See the following links for more information.

Existing local programs or resources

 Alternative Response Programs in other cities

Additional City Council web resources

We are adjusting some City operations due to the current COVID-19 surge, prioritizing essential services and the safety of employees and the public.