New policing legislation, some of which became effective on July 25, has local governments and law enforcement agencies across the state, including the City of Bellingham, working to adjust to changes and explain them to community members.
The Washington State Legislature enacted a series of new policing laws during the 2021 legislative session, some that change the way law enforcement services are delivered. The legislation included changes to police tactics, handling of mental health calls, officer certification and decertification, use of civilian oversight boards to investigate use of force cases and more. Summaries of the most significant bills are posted on the City website.
“We are working to understand and make changes to comply with new legislation,” Bellingham Mayor Seth Fleetwood said. “We are looking at these issues not only as policing issues, but as City-wide and community-wide issues that we need to work on together. The City, along with our various partners, can and will handle the challenges and changes this new legislation brings.“
“In some cases, new laws rely on services or protocols that have not yet been established or funded. In other cases, we will respond to calls for law enforcement service but our actions once we arrive may look different than in the past. We have processes in place to consider, fund, and establish the alternative programs necessary to meet new requirements,” he said.
“The intentions behind these new requirements are values we all share: transparency, fairness, accountability, safety, and providing the right kinds of services for people when they need help, especially the most vulnerable members of our community. ”
Bellingham Police Chief Flo Simon said her department’s first priority remains the safety and welfare of all residents and visitors to our City. She said when people call 9-1-1 seeking law enforcement services, Bellingham Police will respond as appropriate and as resources allow, similar to how the department has responded in the past. In some instances, she said, how officers react once they arrive may change as the result of new legislation.
“While we are fortunate Bellingham Police already met some of the requirements of the new laws before they were adopted, there are a number of changes requiring our officers to alter our response to certain calls, such as those involving behavioral health concerns,” she said.
Simon said tight timelines for implementation by local law enforcement agencies, requirements to alter police actions when responding to certain calls, and unintended consequences of some of the changes, may be seen by community members as the laws take effect. Her department and other City officials are reaching out to the community to explain the changes and how local policing and other City services will be impacted.
Community education about new policing laws
Simon said lawmakers’ focus on police reform during the legislative session resulted in the passage of nearly 100 law enforcement-related bills; 13 are especially significant.
These bills were signed into law by Governor Jay Inslee on May 18, 2021, and many became effective on July 25, 2021. Bellingham Police Department and other City staff are working to understand the bills, train officers, and adapt operations.
Deputy Police Chief Don Almer provided an overview of new legislation during the July 12 Bellingham City Council Committee of the Whole meeting (YouTube video).
A synopsis of all the bills and links to other related information is available on the City website. The website also provides contact information to sign up for a group presentation or to ask questions about the new legislation. Community members can ask questions and provide feedback about the new laws on the City’s Engage Bellingham website.
“Regardless of the some of the challenges presented by these changes,” Simon said. “I am committed to providing the best service possible to our City while upholding the requirements set forth by the new laws. We are in this together, and if we work together, communicate and have productive conversations, many of the unintended consequences can be resolved.”