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 in many cities 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
During July and August 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 recently implemented 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. This creates an avenue for those who feel unable or unwilling to bring forth a complaint due to real or perceived barriers.
Civilian Oversight of Law Enforcement
The Council is considering implementing 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. Work is underway to develop a set of options for Council consideration.
- Video, June 21, 2021, Options for Civilian Oversight of Law Enforcement in Bellingham
- Video, June 7, 2021, Options for Civilian Oversight of Law Enforcement in Bellingham
- Video, August 24, 2020, Discussion of a Police Civilian Oversight Board
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. Modeled on the multijurisdictional Commission on Sexual and Domestic Violence, and with program development supported by the Chuckanut Health Foundation, 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 is expected to be brought before the City and County Councils at the end of 2021.
- Racial Equity Commission planning (Chuckanut Health Foundation)
- Racial Equity Community Visioning Summit
- Video, April 26, 2021, City Council approval of an agreement to support planning for a racial equity commission.
Public Safety Alternative Response Systems
Police departments nationwide are tasked with responding to calls 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. Police in the field do not have the tools to solve many of the problems they encounter, so issues remain unresolved and are likely to recur. Some cities have developed programs to respond to 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.
Local Alternative Response Program Development
Bellingham is working with Whatcom County to develop an alternative response program. In addition, 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. See the following meetings for more information on existing programs and current planning efforts.
- Video, April 26, 2021, City Council Committee of the Whole: Consideration of an Interlocal Agreement with Whatcom County for the Ground Level Response and Coordinated Engagement (GRACE) program
- Video, December 15, 2020, Incarceration Prevention and Reduction Task Force, Behavioral Health Committee, Law Enforcement Assisted Diversion (LEAD) update.
- Video, December 7, 2020, City Council Public Health, Safety, and Justice Committee: Discussion of the Denver STAR Emergency Response Program for Mental Health, Substance Use, and Other Public Health Needs.
- Video, November 10, 2020, Incarceration Prevention and Reduction Task Force, Discussion of integration of LEAD and the GRACE (Ground-level Response and Coordinated Engagement) programs.
- Video, September 14, 2020, City Council Public Health, Safety, and Justice Committee: Presentation on GRACE, Crisis Stabilization and Co-Responder Programs.
- Video, August 24, 2020, City Council Public Health, Safety, and Justice Committee: Discussion of 24/7 Crisis Response for Mental Health, Substance Use, and Other Public Health Needs.
Alternative Response Programs in other cities
- Albuquerque: Community Safety Department
- Eugene/Springfield: CAHOOTS (Crisis Assistance Helping Out On The Streets)
- Denver: STAR (Support Team Assisted Response)
- Portland: Portland Street Response
Existing local programs or resources
- Whatcom County Crisis Stabilization Facility
- Ground Level Response and Coordinated Engagement (GRACE)
- Community Paramedic program
- Homeless Outreach Team
- Law Enforcement Assisted Diversion (LEAD)