‘Defund the police’ movement drives Whatcom racial justice discussions

“Defund the police” has been a key message in many of this year’s Black Lives Matter protests,
including a march in downtown Bellingham on June 15. City officials and community activists
are discussing just what that might mean in Whatcom County. (Mike Sato photo © 2020)

By Alex Meacham

Updated Aug. 26, 2020.

Local activists are advocating for a 50% reduction in the Bellingham Police Department budget, even as BPD says it could use more resources for meeting the calls it routinely answers now — including a large number related to behavioral health and social welfare. Any major change in allocation of government money and resources involves time-consuming, complex conversations about policing, race, mental health and drug use. While reformers would like to see change soon, community-wide conversations are just beginning, and the eventual direction and pace of change are as yet unknown.

The first two in a series of listening sessions on race and justice were held July 28 and Aug. 10. Sponsored by the City of Bellingham, Whatcom County, Lummi Nation and Western Washington University, the sessions are meant to be “a first step in a process of understanding our community’s experiences with racism and injustice and taking steps to effectively address these issues,” according to Whatcom County Executive Satpal Sidhu, an initiator of the series.

Future listening sessions will be held on Aug. 15 starting at 11 a.m. and Aug. 18 starting at 5 p.m. Those who would like to participate must sign up in advance, and will be invited to speak on a first-come, first-served basis. There are also several options for listening in.

One of the chief concerns voiced by several of the 18 speakers in the first two-hour session was to “defund the police.” 

The “defund” movement is based around a drive to reallocate city funds away from the police but does not mean completely removing them. Other cities around the United States have taken similar actions, including Camden, New Jersey, where the police department was rebuilt from the ground up. In 1989, Eugene, Oregon, took a different approach and began the Crisis Assistance Helping Out On The Streets (CAHOOTS) program as a form of community-based public safety. The movement has been in the public eye since the death of George Floyd while in the custody of police in May in Minneapolis.

The defund movement has been clarified by some proponents with the idea that communities would be better served by responders whose sole task is community support and social services, not criminal policing. It is currently unclear how much day-to-day police work could be described as social service, rather than criminal policing. The lack of clarity complicates the discussion in Bellingham, as elsewhere. 

Reform through defunding

Locally, the defund movement is driven partly by the Racial Justice Coalition (RJC), the Whatcom Civil Rights Project (WCRP) and Imagine No Kages (INK), self-described abolitionist organizations looking for reform around police actions, incarceration, use of force and community involvement. 

Josh Cerretti is one of the co-founders of INK, which was formed in 2016 amid efforts to defeat a jail tax referendum in Whatcom County. The group has been working towards similar reform goals since then.

Earlier this year, RJC, WCRP and INK released a petition which had garnered nearly 3,300 signatures at time of publication to defund the BPD and invest in community-led health and safety, among other goals. The petition, which Cerretti now describes as outdated, originally called for an $835,000 reduction in the BPD budget, based on a projected shortfall of city income due to COVID-19. The petition called on addressing the anticipated budget shortfall and to “more adequately fund proven public safety solutions,” according to the RJC website. 

The total planned BPD budget expenditure for 2020 is $34,193,422 — about 30% of the total city budget. Activist organizations associated with the defund movement now say a 50% reduction in that budget and reallocation of those funds to civilian-led efforts would address the goal to decrease the amount of police involvement in non-force-requiring incidents, such as drug addiction and mental health calls. 

Who’s answering at 3 a.m.?

As to whether the police should be the first line of response, BPD Chief David Doll said that “whether it’s people who are in a mental health crisis, or drug addicted, or even homeless, you’re calling the police to deal with that, and that’s not the right decision. But it’s what we’re left with. A lot of these calls come at 3 o’clock in the morning. We’re the only ones working at that hour.” 

In just a few hours, officers typically respond to a wide variety of calls. A random list might inlcude:

  • A seemingly mentally ill person has dragged a trash can into a convenience store and dumped the contents on the check-out counter.
  • A group of people are partying behind an empty commercial building.
  • A car seemingly occupied by a person living in it has been cruising around a residential neighborhood.
  • Possible stolen property is reported at a bicycle “chop shop.”
  • An angry altercation has flared up in a motel parking lot.
  • A motorcycle rider has smashed a car windshield with his helmet after the two collided in a fender-bender.
  • An upset parent reports that her daughter had been coerced into sex by a next-door neighbor.

Ed.: BPD maintains a searchable activity report online, and the Whatcom County Sheriff’s office posts daily activity updates online.

These and similar situations may be escalated or defused based on how first responders react.

Bellingham police officers spend significantly more time on training than is required by the Washington State Criminal Justice Training Commission (WSCJTC). The commission requires 24 hours of training per officer per year, while BPD officers spend close to 100 hours per officer per year. If an officer attended all available sessions, he or she would log about 128 hours per year. 

Approximately $92,000 of the BPD budget is spent on training — less than 1%, Doll noted. 

Topics include Washington state requirements for crisis intervention, use of force and legal update training. BPD topics including re-training for vascular neck restraint, racial bias training, behavioral health topics, de-escalation tactics and others. 

Cutting outreach first?

Doll said he disagrees with a comment made by Deputy Chief Flo Simon during a racial justice forum last month that budget cuts would first affect training. Instead, he said budget cuts would first affect the outreach officers, who “work closely with neighbors, neighborhood associations, businesses, and other community stakeholders to collaboratively address issues around livability and quality of life,” according to the city website.

 The BPD has two primary officers on the outreach team, and one behavioral health officer. They are primarily tasked with developing relationships with high utilizers of 911 and maintaining police relationships with the community in their designated areas. 

Doll said that his main goals are to have enough officers to handle 911 calls and to make sure that they’re well trained. If required to reduce his budget, Doll said he “will start to cut the services that are used to handle those 911 calls. That’s our outreach team, and that’s our behavioral officer.” He said that he wouldn’t cut training, as having well-trained officers in the field is important to the department. 

Approximately 75% of the BPD budget goes to salaries, wages and benefits. 

“When you look at my department, I don’t have any fat. Everyone is doing a specific function, that we need more of,” said Doll. 

As an example, Doll said, “I have one behavioral health officer. I want four.” According to Doll, if he had four, he could have someone with behavioral health as their focus in the field every day, for every shift. They don’t have to respond to regular 911 calls and can work with people experiencing crisis, homelessness or other problems on a longer term. 

Use of force

BPD records the types of incidents that occur in Bellingham and commonly references that the total number of use of force incidents in all of 2019 (most recent complete data) was 204 incidents, or just 0.3% of all encounters with police. 

Cerretti believes that in situations that don’t require force, having the potential for that use of force only escalates the problem. 

“The Bellingham police are not the LAPD, they’re not the Seattle Police Department, there’s a lot of differences,” Cerretti said. “But, there’s no absence of brutality. There’s no effective procedure to hold these men accountable, when it happens.”

According to BPD use of force statistics, Black or African American and American Indian people are disproportionately affected by BPD uses of force.

In the July 2019 U.S. Census data, Black or African American identifying people made up 1.6% of Bellingham’s population, and Native American identifying people 1.3%. 

In 2019’s complete data and the year-to-date data for 2020, BPD used force against these populations in 9-11% of their interactions. (The report cautions that this data may be misleading, as one or two people could skew the statistics.)

Some organizations have suggested that having a civilian-run dispatch would make a CAHOOTS-like program possible, where support should the primary response for calls with a crisis or assessment component. In Bellingham, the majority of 911 calls have a mental health or addiction component, Doll said.

Take a stand

Cerretti said he wants the elected officials of Bellingham to stand behind a policy. In his lifetime, he said, he’s seen a “reckoning about racialized violence, anti-Blackness, police brutality.”

According to Cerretti, “to not have a position on it, as a white adult, in 2020, is shameful. To not be able to say ‘this is something we COULD do,’ it really… it’s disappointing.” 

Bellingham City Councilmember Daniel Hammill, who is on the Public Health, Safety and Justice committee, said he believes some amount of calls could be diverted to a non-police response. “We could be diverting 15-20% of 911 calls through a behavioral health response system that not only responds to calls, but provides follow-up services on things like housing, EBT, medical appointments and basic services that help stabilize a person.”

“Every community can improve itself — from equity to service provision, from accessibility to public health. I can’t speak for others but I think we should always seek ways to listen, involve others, collaborate, acknowledge privilege and seek cultural humility and improve relationships with people who we share our community with,” Hammill said.

The listening session came under some criticism from various organizations, including the Whatcom Human Rights Task Force, for the originally planned involvement of the police in a situation where criticism of the police by vulnerable people was likely. 

Consequently, while the Whatcom County Sheriff’s Office, Whatcom County Prosecuting Attorney’s Office and BPD were originally listed as event sponsors, they are not participating formally in the virtual meetings.

 The first listening session was focused on bringing Black, Indigenous and People of Color voices forward as well as establishing a format for future meetings. It did not include the police or prosecutor. “We are hopeful that moving forward, actions by local government will be more intentional and inclusive,” the WHRTF said.

The process of adjusting city and county policy is long term and activists would like to see change in the short term. It remains to be seen if a 50% reduction in police budget and redirection of funds will happen. For now, the police will continue to serve in the role of first response for social welfare calls. 

Alex Meacham is a recent Western Washington University graduate with a degree in environmental journalism. He spends his free time playing with his dog and enjoys craft beer, cooking and videography.