Bellingham Mayor Seth Fleetwood announced today progress on new initiatives to address open drug use and unwanted behaviors downtown, including: a proposed ordinance prohibiting drug use in public places; new options to swiftly address charges in court and connect individuals with services; and a new workgroup to maintain closer City contact with the downtown business community.
These actions are the next step in a multi-year focus on downtown, where public health and safety concerns continue despite nearly one million dollars in investments in security personnel, downtown ambassadors, graffiti abatement, sanitation and other services last year and continuing this year.
“We remain committed to making progress toward helping everyone affected by downtown public health and safety concerns,” Mayor Fleetwood said. “Everyone who works, lives and enjoys our downtown deserves clean, welcoming experiences. We also want to connect people who have substance abuse, behavioral health and other needs with services and treatments to help them. We are working to achieve these goals and continue to realize our vision for a safe, healthy downtown.”
Prohibiting drug use in public places
Noting the increasing complaints of open drug use downtown and elsewhere, Mayor Fleetwood has proposed a new local law prohibiting drug use in public places. The Bellingham City Council will consider this proposal at its March 13, 2023, meeting.
Mayor Fleetwood said changes to state law in recent years related to personal possession of narcotics effectively decriminalized open drug use, which has made it difficult to address drug-related behaviors. The proposed local ordinance provides a vital tool to get people the help they need and hold them accountable for unwanted behaviors.
Similar to existing state laws that prohibit the use of alcohol and marijuana in public, the proposed local ordinance prohibits the use of controlled substances in public without a prescription. Violation of the ordinance would be a misdemeanor subject to arrest. If approved, the ordinance could become effective in mid-April at the soonest.
Collaboration with Municipal Court
Mayor Fleetwood and Bellingham Municipal Court Judge Debra Lev are working together on new options to quickly, compassionately address those arrested for certain low-level, non-violent misdemeanors. This would include those charged under the proposed ordinance prohibiting drug use. As a first step, Bellingham Police will transport those arrested directly to Bellingham Municipal Court as Judge Lev will extend court sessions to immediately hear those cases.
In addition, Judge Lev and Mayor Fleetwood will begin work together to create a “Community Court” within the Municipal Court, which is a specialty therapeutic court that uses combined strategies of holding participants accountable while connecting them to social services to help address behavioral health and addiction issues.
Judge Lev said community courts are an innovative approach to achieving the goals of supporting and restoring people’s lives while reducing crime, unwanted behaviors, and overall financial costs to the community.
“Community courts generally take an individual and trauma-informed approach rather than the traditional punitive approach typically seen in the criminal justice system,” Judge Lev said. “Community courts use a collaborative, problem-solving approach to crime. They provide practical, targeted solutions working to find housing services, education, employment, alcohol and drug rehabilitation, behavioral health services, veterans services and other social connections.”
Mayor’s Downtown Solutions Workgroup
Mayor Fleetwood said he also is forming a new Mayor’s Downtown Solutions Workgroup for regular discussion and feedback about downtown needs and concerns, for developing and prioritizing downtown initiatives, and a way to maintain closer contact with downtown business representatives.
A package of strategies to foster a safe, welcoming environment in Bellingham’s downtown initiated in early 2022 have been underway for more than a year and are continuing, with more than one million dollars in City investments directed toward downtown in 2023. These initiatives were identified with participation and feedback from the downtown business community and other stakeholders.
“We recognize that despite some improvements from our focused efforts downtown, public health and safety concerns continue,” Mayor Fleetwood said. “Though there are continued challenges, I remain positive about the future of downtown and am committed to working with our community to continue making improvements and addressing problems.”