December 18, 2020
Bellingham police budget tweaked for near future; equity advocates continue push for more
Stella Harvey

Through rallies outside City Hall, listening sessions, comments in public meetings and other input, city officials have heard from Bellingham residents this year about their desires for change in policing practices and funding. The City’s budget for the next biennium reflects some of that discussion, while advocates continue to assert the need for more.

photo: Mike Sato © 2020
December 18, 2020
Bellingham police budget tweaked for near future; equity advocates continue push for more
Stella Harvey

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Since protests against systemic racism began in June, organizers from across the country have demanded their local governments divest from policing and invest in social services to prevent crime and crisis.

In Bellingham, some local advocacy groups transitioned their demands from over the summer to budget season, looking for tangible proof that their representatives heard their calls for change over the last six months. 

With all eyes on Bellingham Mayor Seth Fleetwood and the Bellingham City Council, some hoped to see major funding reallocations to community-led initiatives supporting alternatives to police response, while others fought for specific line items to help continue the work around racial equity and justice. 

Just a trim

The Bellingham City Council passed an ordinance adopting the city’s 2021-2022 biennial budget during their meeting on Dec. 7. The two-year $664 million spending plan allocates $34.7 million to the Bellingham Police Department (BPD) in 2021, down by just 5% from the $36.6 million the department spent in 2020. The department’s budget is then set to rise to $35.8 million in 2022. 

The budget allocates $1 million towards supporting families with children, LGBTQ people and seniors who are experiencing homelessness or are at risk of becoming homeless, and another $500,000 to expand the Homeless Outreach Team (HOT). But many of the programs and services community activists fought for were not included in the budget.

Since October, the Defund Bellingham Police Department Coalition has called on the City of Bellingham to reduce the police department’s budget by 50% in the 2021-2022 budget. The coalition is made up of nearly a dozen local social justice organizations including the Democratic Socialists of America, the Whatcom Human Rights Task Force and the Whatcom Peace and Justice Center.

In their call for divestment, the coalition demanded the city divert 50% of the police department’s funding to 11 community-led programs. One of the coalition’s central suggested alternatives was that the city implement an unarmed 911 co-responder program similar to the Crisis Assistance Helping Out On The Streets (CAHOOTS) Program in Eugene, Oregon.

Criminalizing crisis?

During four listening sessions over the summer, community members frequently flagged what they see as the city’s over-reliance on police to respond to calls involving mental health or substance use. Many community members said this further criminalizes people in crisis, rather than providing people the help and resources they need. 

Defund BPD Coalition member Brel Froebe said implementing a program like CAHOOTS and other social services that support community members proactively would eliminate the need for punitive systems like policing. 

Others including Jennifer Miller, a Bellingham resident who spoke at the council’s Nov. 23 public hearing on the budget, do not support defunding Bellingham’s Police Department. Miller said it doesn’t have to be one or the other: the city can implement a program like CAHOOTS when it is ready, and fully fund the police department.

“We are being given a false choice,” Miller said. “[The police department] is already doing far more with far less than the city whose model is being held up as the goal. The idea of defunding any further and expecting anything other than a public safety nightmare is outrageous.”

Alternatives under study

Council member Pinky Vargas said while an unarmed 911 co-responder program is not in the budget, the council is in the early stages of developing a program similar to CAHOOTS. Since August, the Public Health, Safety and Justice Committee has heard several presentations from programs around the country, including CAHOOTS and a new program in Denver, Colorado, called the Support Team Assisted Response (STAR) program. Vargas said the council will continue its work in developing a proposal in 2021.

Vargas said you won’t see a major cut in the police department’s funding in the 2021-2022 budget because the actions community members are calling for are relevant to every department in Bellingham. 

“We hear you. It’s policy change and funding for action that you want, and we want it too. We are laying the groundwork. Some things we cannot do immediately,” Vargas said. “We did not defund [the police] by 50%, which is an arbitrary number, [because] it’s not how we make policy.”

‘More need than resources’

Cuts to the 2021-2022 BPD budget include eliminating one full-time officer position and increasing their contribution to Whatcom County’s new Crisis Stabilization Center by $6,000, for a total of $65,000. The eliminated position was unfilled in 2020, and the department will reallocate the salary of $140,000 to the Ground-level Response and Coordinated Engagement Program (GRACE). 

This reallocation effectively doubles the city’s contributions to the GRACE Program, a community-led, long-term case management program for people who frequently come in contact with law enforcement or utilize emergency services due to health concerns, behavioral health needs or unstable housing. GRACE is funded collaboratively by Whatcom County, the City of Bellingham and PeaceHealth. 

GRACE Program Contact Manager Gail De Hoog said GRACE is not a crisis response team. Through long-term case management, intensive case managers and community paramedics help lower recidivism by working with a network of community organizations to get clients the support they need, she said.

In addition to reallocating $140,000 to the GRACE program, Bellingham Police Chief David Doll pledged to transition three full-time patrol officers to behavioral health officers (BHOs) in 2021. The department currently has only one, Zack Serad, who works with GRACE Intensive Case Manager Laura Woods to coordinate resources to community members in need and respond to some calls pertaining to mental health or substance use. 

Claudia Murphy, BPD’s public information officer, said Serad may respond to calls related to behavioral health if he feels he can be of assistance. However, a BHO’s top responsibilities are to work directly with organizations affiliated with GRACE to find long-term solutions for his clients, and to build relationships with community groups and people needing GRACE’s services. 

De Hoog said having three more BHOs would greatly increase the number of community members GRACE could serve.

“We have far more need than we have resources available,” De Hoog said. 

Murphy said the three new BHOs will remain armed and receive specialized training on how to respond to people in crisis.

Armed response

During the council’s public hearings on Nov. 9 and Nov. 23, many community members expressed concern that the GRACE program does not resolve the need for an unarmed 911 co-responder program. Froebe said armed police officers will still be responsible for responding to people in crisis.

Froebe said rather than giving police officers the work of being case managers, he would like to see unarmed, highly trained mental health professionals work with people in crisis.

“It just seems like an incredibly inadequate and poor substitute to what the community is actually calling for, which is a community-run, mental health crisis response program,” Froebe said. 

Froebe said that implementing a program like CAHOOTS, which sends out two-person teams consisting of a medic and a crisis worker with substantial mental health training, would more adequately provide community members the help that they need without escalating a crisis.

“One of the real advantages to the CAHOOTS program is that it’s a community-run organization that has an established trust built with the community it’s serving. They have the street cred to be effective, and I don’t know if the behavioral health department of Bellingham really has that,” Froebe said. 

Murphy said while the BPD supports creating a community-led, unarmed emergency response program, in the meantime, the department is still responsible for assisting community members in crisis.

“A program needs to be identified, studied, funding allocated and then tested. In the meantime, responses to these calls are still necessary,” Murphy said. “We hear what community activists are saying. However, to completely stop responding to calls where people are experiencing mental and behavioral health issues could be a danger to the community as we do not have anything else in place.”

Council member Hannah Stone said after hearing community member’s concerns about BHOs, she struggled with passing the budget allocating resources to appoint more. Stone said while the city develops a community-led crisis response program, BHOs can build relationships and trust with community members and other crisis response entities. 

“When we look at a continuum of what public safety would look like, one is that civilian response … and we’re in the developmental stage of creating that program,” Stone said. “Second in line to that is a co-responder program, so when there is a need for police back-up in limited cases, those officers who are responding have that additional training and [those] relationships.”

Police presence in schools

Many community members also demanded the BPD’s School Resource Officer be removed from Bellingham Public Schools. Bellingham Educators for Liberatory Action (BELA), an organization made up of local educators and community members, said police presence in schools helps uphold systemic racism and makes many students feel unsafe, despite claims the officer is there to provide security and protect students and teachers.

Despite BELA organizers speaking up at multiple listening sessions and sharing data and testimonials through a Police Presence in Schools document, the position will remain in place in 2021. 

Addressing racial equity

While some organizers hoped to see a large reduction in the BPD’s budget, others looked for specific funding allocations to new projects addressing racial equity in Bellingham. 

Organizers Shu-Ling Zhao, director of plays and a teacher at Sylvia Center for the Arts, and Kristina Michele, community activist and co-host of Bellingham Tonight, hoped the council would allocate $130,000 to help create a Racial Equity Commission (REC). According to Zhao, the commission would collaborate with Black, Indigenous and People of Color leaders as well as social justice advocates to address racial equity, civil rights and systemic oppression in Whatcom County. 

While the Chuckanut Health Foundation is currently fiscally sponsoring the development of the commission, Zhao said the commission sent Fleetwood and Whatcom County Executive Satpal Sidhu a funding request to continue their work. Whatcom County allocated $130,000 over the next two years as a line-item in their 2021-2022 budget, while the City of Bellingham did not. 

Zhao and Michele began developing the commission after organizing protests against systemic racism in policing and the health and safety disparities Black people, Indigenous people and people of color face in Bellingham. Zhao and Michele met with Doll and community members who have had negative experiences with the BPD.

Zhao said through these meetings, it became clear that the community needed a longer-term platform to facilitate these conversations and positively shape public safety in Whatcom County. 

“The defund BPD conversation is an awesome conversation to have because it makes us ask questions [like] are we doing everything that we can and are we funding things in the way that we should?” Zhao said. “I feel like we can expand the thinking that comes from that conversation … and I think that’s a role that an equity commission could play.”

Zhao said similar to the Bellingham-Whatcom County Sexual Assault and Domestic Violence Commission, the Racial Equity Commission will be an interlocal commission working collaboratively with the City of Bellingham and Whatcom County as a quasi-governmental entity, meaning part public governing body and part private nonprofit. 

According to Zhao, the commission could continue to address the community’s concerns about policing in Whatcom County, investigate and report on issues like public safety and propose policy to local governing bodies.

No line item — yet

While the city’s budget did not include a line item specifically allocating funds to the commission, in a Nov. 9 meeting with the council, Fleetwood said he would contribute funds from the mayor’s discretionary budget in the coming year. Stone said the council and city need to go beyond saying they will implement the initiatives people are asking for, and show that they are dedicating funds to these projects.

“When we say ‘addressing social justice issues through various initiatives,’ that sounds great, but when you look at the budget and you don’t see a line item, or a financial investment in those causes, I think it raises concern in the community about how serious we are to that priority,” Stone said.

Fleetwood said before he allocates funding, the city and county will convene a task force in the new year to design the commission. Once the task force recommends specific figures for funding the commission, the mayor said, he will allocate funds.

“There is money in the mayor’s budget that is going to go to race and justice work … we don’t have line items for particular projects because the details of those have not yet emerged. We’re working on those things,” Fleetwood said in response to Stone’s comment.

While there is no documented commitment the city will dedicate funds, Zhao said she expects the city to help fund the commission in the future.

“It’s not my favorite choice but at the same time, I do have faith that the city is committed to allocating those resources in the future,” Zhao said.

Re the role of governmental budgets in social change, Zhao quoted Martin Luther King, Jr., saying budgets are moral documents that represent the values of a community. Zhao said while she is glad the city has increased its contributions to GRACE, she said it is a strong indicator of where the city’s priorities are that it only took eliminating one full-time police officer position to double its investment in a social services program. 

“It’s excellent to be in a position where we’re looking at the city and the county being on the same page that an equity commission needs to happen,” Zhao said. “But as someone who’s watching all of this take place, I ask myself, are we doing everything that we can, and what values are guiding those numbers?”