May 13, 2021
Law and order, alternatives to jail: Bellingham compiles a wide-ranging priorities wish list for new police chief
Stella Harvey

A Defund the Police march in mid-June 2020 (top image) and an encampment of people experiencing houselessness over the winter (lower image) brought two of the community’s major issues to the steps of City Hall — issues that will likely land atop the priority list of Bellingham’s new police chief.

photo: Amy Nelson © 2020
May 13, 2021
Law and order, alternatives to jail: Bellingham compiles a wide-ranging priorities wish list for new police chief
Stella Harvey

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Bellingham Police Chief David Doll’s announcement last December of his retirement from the position he’s held for the last three years — after a 40-year career in law enforcement — prompted questions about the next chief’s priorities. As community organizers continue advocating for racial equity, ending police brutality and redistributing more funds toward social service programs, some community members say the way next chief addresses these issues will greatly impact the most vulnerable community members in Bellingham.

The next Bellingham police chief, who will make just over $166,000 a year, will have myriad responsibilities, including managing the day-to-day operations of the department, preparing an annual budget, and overseeing investigations, crime prevention, and records and reporting procedures.

The chief reports to the mayor and works closely with the city council and departments to implement strategy and policy. In addition, the chief is expected to engage frequently with residents, community groups and neighborhood organizations.

Brian Heinrich, deputy administrator of the City of Bellingham, said the city hired Prothman, a consulting firm specializing in executive level leadership positions, to help recruit candidates locally and nationally.

From 11 applicants, the city named four finalists on May 12. Interviews are scheduled for the week of May 18. Candidates are:

  • Kristina Jones, City of Portland Police Bureau captain
  • Matthew Davis, Illinois State Police first deputy director
  • Nick Almquist, Snoqualmie Police Department captain
  • Don Almer, Bellingham Police Department Deputy Police chief

The new chief will replace interim chief Flo Simon, who has said she will retire this year.

Community feedback

In April, as the city accepted applications for the open position, they also asked for community feedback on what priorities and experience the next chief of police should have. They received nearly 200 submissions from individual community members, identifying a wide variety of characteristics and priorities to look for in the next chief.

Many submissions requested a chief who is professional, compassionate, ethical and who worked their way up through the Bellingham Police Department over the years. Many said the new chief should already be connected to the community and well-versed on the local issues. But the responses also reflect conflicting ideas of what the next chief should prioritize and how they should guide the department.

The Riveters Collective, whose mission is to promote progressive civic action, encouraged community members to participate in the city’s survey. Committee chair Krystal Rodriguez said the collective started a Justice System Committee in August 2020 during the surge of racial justice organizing, and since then have focused specifically on raising awareness around local and statewide issues around policing.

Kim Ninnemann, a member of that committee, said she wants the next chief to prioritize collecting specific demographic data on traffic stops, arrests and incarceration rates as well as making data available to the community. 

Law and order

Some community members said the next chief should focus on maintaining law and order, be tough on crime at all levels and support and defend their officers. Some comments referenced “cleaning up the city,” referring to the growing housing crisis in the county and the Bellingham Occupied Protest, an encampment of unhoused people and organizers that started on the lawn in front of Bellingham City Hall at 210 Lottie Street.

Socially distanced attendees at a Rally for Love in October 2020 outside the Bellingham Public Library Central Branch included activists asking for major changes in the police department along with respect for stories of their experiences reported by people of color. (Amy Nelson photo © 2020)

The City and the Bellingham police department have faced scrutiny after sweeping the encampment on January 28. Since then, the organizers have moved to several locations across town, and the City has removed each encampment with involvement of the police. 

In response to a question regarding what the new police chief should prioritize, one comment states, “the theft, vandalism and violence around the unhoused population in Bellingham. Make appropriate services available, but please enforce the laws.”

Brel Froebe, a Bellingham resident and member of the Defund BPD Coalition, said he would like to see the next chief of police end the sweeps of people in such encampments and instead divert funds to social services that would prevent crime and people being forced to set up camp in public places.

Froebe said that in his survey submission, he asked that the city “consider using this as an opportunity to reimagine policing in our community.”

Support for social services

Many other survey submissions said the next chief should be antiracist, willing to hold officers accountable for their actions and transparent with the community. Many said they expect the next chief to be a peacemaker who prioritizes de-escalation and transformative justice.

Peter Frazier, co-owner of the Leopold Hotel in downtown Bellingham, said he expects the new chief to be professional and make sure the force is implementing new best practices. He’s also hopeful that the new chief will support established social service alternatives to policing like the Ground-Level Response and Coordinated-Engagement Program (GRACE)

The GRACE Program is a community-led, long-term case management program for people who frequently utilize emergency services due to health concerns, behavioral health needs or unstable housing. 

“Going forward, there are so many other initiatives we can try in Bellingham under the new chief’s leadership,” Frazier said. 

Lowering incarceration rates

Ninnemann said it’s important to her for the next chief to continue working with community initiatives like Law Enforcement Assisted Diversion (LEAD), an arrest diversion program that helps community members who frequently come in contact with police get connected with the resources they need. LEAD operates in tandem with the GRACE Program to provide services and lower incarceration.

“We’d like [to see] a police department that embraces the diversion of mental and behavioral health issues prior to and after entering the criminal justice system,” Ninnemann said. “The new chief can strongly influence these expectations because Bellingham plays a leadership role in our county.”

Alice Clark, executive director of the Downtown Bellingham Partnership, said she would like the next police chief to prioritize and support regular training, in areas such as diversity and sensitivity, crisis intervention and de-escalation. Clark said she would also like the new chief to be committed to transforming and evolving the force with the future in mind, and be willing to question policies and procedures, even when it’s difficult. 

“I think the transition to a new permanent police chief will give the city the opportunity to prioritize what is important to the community at this point in time,” Clark said. “Whenever an institution has the opportunity to do a check-in like that and create new criteria based on new information and influences, it’s a positive thing.”

Balancing act

Michael Heatherly, executive director of the Law Advocates of Whatcom County (LAW), an organization that provides low-income residents free legal assistance through volunteer attorneys, said while LAW doesn’t deal directly with criminal law or local law enforcement, many of their clients do. 

Heatherly said many of the clients that seek LAW’s services are experiencing houselessness or have criminal histories that make it difficult for them to find housing or work, and some have been victims of crimes such as domestic violence. 

With the backdrop of local and national activism around police brutality and the history and purpose of policing, Heatherly said the way the next police chief views these issues will shape the force as a whole, and how Bellingham as a community moves forward.

“The way law enforcement relates to the members of society, especially those who have been disfavored because of their race, social status, sexuality … affects how they are able to live their lives,” Heatherly said. “I think the new chief will face a difficult balancing act in effectively protecting us from crime while also protecting everyone from unjust treatment by the system.”

Systemic change?

Many responses to the city’s survey made some reference to the criminal justice system, systemic racism or systemic change. These comments speak to the larger point many commenters made: a new police chief, while influential, will also be working within the established criminal justice system.

Froebe said even though he participated in the city’s survey, he does not believe a new chief alone will be able to make the kind of systemic changes he and other Defund BPD organizers are working toward.

“Unless the city hires a new chief who understands the racist and classist history of policing,” Froebe said, “I don’t see any opportunities for change with a new chief.”

Starck Follis, director of the Whatcom County Public Defender’s Office, said that the next chief will have the power to guide the force, and the chief’s decisions could in turn impact the kinds of crime public defenders see in the county.

Follis said he expects the next police chief to continue the city’s work of reducing incarceration and look for ways to evolve restorative justice programs, noting that there are ways to enforce the law and prosecute crime that don’t involve locking people away.

“Like Bob Dylan said, ‘the times they are a-changin’. I’ve seen things change dramatically in terms of policing, enforcement and prosecution over the last few years,” Follis said. “I think that the expectation is that the new police chief will embrace those changes rather than fight against them.”