June 23, 2021
Search for new police chief surfaces questions about transparency and the public’s role
Stella Harvey

While the City of Bellingham continues its search for a new police chief, questions about the level of transparency in the process have arisen for some in the community; at left, an officer at work on the night shift. (City of Bellingham image)

June 23, 2021
Search for new police chief surfaces questions about transparency and the public’s role
Stella Harvey

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Bellingham Mayor Seth Fleetwood on June 14 ended the search for a new police chief without hiring one of four finalists identified in May. As the City of Bellingham, city council and the newly formed Racial Equity Commission seek to address systemic racism in and out of policing, some community members looking to engage in good faith have raised questions about whether the city’s commitment to transparency is a buzzword, or a tangible commitment to inclusion. 

The city is planning a new selection round to begin this fall, but some community members say they were left feeling abandoned by an initial round they feel was not transparent and that ended abruptly without what they see as a proper explanation. 

“The Riveters Collective’s Justice System Committee gives the city a failing grade, in terms of transparency and community involvement,” said Krystal Rodriguez, committee chair of the Riveters Collective’s Justice System Committee.

Collective members repeatedly inquired about the hiring process over email, according to Rodriguez, sending multiple messages over several months. Rodriguez said they received no responses to their questions about the process and how community members could engage with the candidates or share feedback. 

The search begins

As the city began the hiring process after naming deputy chief Flo Simon as interim chief, Rodriguez said the Riveters Collective and the Justice System Committee started looking for ways to engage the community in the selection process. 

On Jan. 27, committee member Kim Ninneman emailed the mayor’s office and city council members inquiring about the timeline of the hiring process and how community members could get involved. (Ed.: For more on community input, see Law and order, alternatives to jail: Bellingham compiles a wide-ranging priorities wish list for new police chief,” Salish Current, May 31, 2021.)

Council member Michael Lilliquist, who represents the 6th Ward, responded, saying that though the council would not be directly involved in hiring the next police chief, the city could likely use more community input. After Lilliquist forwarded Ninnemann’s email to the mayor’s office, Ninnemann sent another inquiry on Feb. 4, but received no further response. 

Applications opened in April, and the city opened a survey through its Engage Bellingham website, requesting community feedback on what priorities and experience the next chief of police should have. The city received nearly 200 submissions. Deputy Administrator Brian Heinrich told the Salish Current subsequently that the city had used this feedback to develop questions for the candidates.

Salish Current learned in May that the city had hired Prothman, a consulting firm, to help recruit candidates locally and nationally.

After the application window closed, each of the 11 candidates’ materials and qualifications were reviewed against criteria the city had published in a brochure and online. 

Seeking a role

Rodriguez said that during the application period, on April 14, the collective had sent another round of emails to the mayor’s office, all city council members, Simon, Heinrich and Ameleah Sullivan, a human resources senior analyst with the city. Sullivan and Heinrich are listed as contacts on the Engage Bellingham police chief survey. 

In their email, the collective asked how and when the list of final candidates would be made available, explaining that they wanted to stay engaged in the process. Rodriguez said they did not receive a response from anyone they reached out to.

On May 10, Rodriguez sent emails to Fleetwood, the council and Simon suggesting specific measures the city could take to make the hiring process transparent and engaging. The committee urged the city to share the cover letters and résumés of each of the finalists, share each finalist’s record, if any, of complaints or reprimands, and host a forum where the public could meet the final candidates and ask questions. 

“As community members, we want to participate in the process for hiring a new police chief. We hope the City of Bellingham provides forums and candidate details, such that the community can provide informed feedback for this important leadership position,” the letter reads. 

The committee also requested that the mayor’s office publicize the timeline and detailed explanations of the hiring process so community members could stay engaged and easily follow along. Rodriguez said the collective received no responses to those requests.

Heinrich later explained to Salish Current that under the public records act, application materials for those applying for public employment are not subject to public disclosure, so the city could not share the materials the committee requested. 

On to the finals

The four finalists were announced in a press release on May 12, and the process moved to panel interviews with internal and external stakeholders. These included about a dozen city department heads, city officials and members of other local law enforcement agencies. Council members Lilliquist, Daniel Hammill and Hollie Huthman were consulted; Hammill and Huthman serve on the council’s Public Health, Safety and Justice Committee.

Several local nonprofit directors participated as external stakeholders, including representatives of community grant funders, social justice organizations, direct assistance agencies and crisis intervention agencies. Members of the chief’s community advisory panel and local police union representatives were also consulted. 

Hammill, who represents the 3rd Ward, told Salish Current that he had participated in an interview panel as an internal stakeholder. He noted that all of the candidates were asked the same questions, but did not comment further. 

The mayor’s office did not respond to Salish Current inquiries about how stakeholders were selected, and the stakeholders were not identified until after the hiring process ended. 

The Riveters’ Justice System Committee emailed the same group of city employees contacted earlier in the month again on May 17, requesting more information on who the internal and external stakeholders were, given that they had been referenced in public press releases, but not publicly named. Rodriguez said she specifically wanted to know if the group of stakeholders included any community members critical of the police. 

Not a match

The Salish Current had emailed Janice Keller, city communications director, twice in May inquiring about the status of the hiring process, to which there was no response. In June, the publication reached out twice more, receiving a response on June 10 stating “we have no new information to share.”

Keller said the city did not provide information about the stakeholders or the candidates, in an effort to prevent attempts at influencing those involved. She noted that the city directed inquiries about the hiring process to Engage Bellingham.

“We were waiting for the search to conclude before providing information about who was involved. It didn’t seem fair to the candidates or the panel members to publish that information until the search was over,” Keller said.  

The city announced on June 14 that it had decided to end the initial search round without hiring any of the candidates. Final interviews ended on May 28.

In a press release, Fleetwood said “while several strong candidates were interviewed as finalists, we did not find an individual that met the city’s and the community’s vision for the future of the Bellingham Police Department.”

Heinrich said that final candidates were subjected to a thorough vetting prior to the interview process.

In addition, “had a preferred candidate been advanced, the preferred candidate would have had to undergo an extensive background check by Public Safety Testing” Heinrich said. “We are confident that any previous complaints or concerns would ultimately be revealed in the background check process.”

Communication issues

Under normal circumstances, Heinrich said the city would have organized an event where community members could meet the final candidates, like they did the last time the city hired a police chief, in 2012. Due to COVID-19 protocols, the city instead chose to include the community through the Engage Bellingham survey.

“I hope the city administration has a policy, like I do, to respond to as many constituent communications as time permits,” Lilliquist said. “I was told that hundreds of comments were compiled and reviewed, which suggests public input did influence the decision process, even if each one did not receive a reply.” 

Rodriguez said the feedback survey alone is not enough community engagement for hiring a position of such importance to the community.

“The city made no other attempts for transparency or public participation other than to post a spreadsheet with the responses,” Rodriguez said. “We know from communications about COVID that the city is capable of communicating important issues better.” 

Eve Smason-Marcus, a founder of the Bellingham Unity Committee and a candidate for the 6th Ward council seat, is concerned by the lack of transparency during this process, and doesn’t think enough community members were involved. 

“The spaces that were made available for community input were inaccessible and the city should have prioritized community dialogue and transparency from the beginning,” Smason-Marcus said. “Hopefully with the process starting over in September the city can step up in being accountable to the community and engage in a more accessible process.”

Next up: Round Two

Heinrich said that the city’s second attempt at hiring a new chief, which is set to begin in September, will likely be very similar to the process earlier this year. He said the city is hopeful that they will be able to host in-person interviews where candidates have the opportunity to travel to Bellingham, but they did not cite specific changes to their process or community engagement efforts.

“We will review our processes and seek to improve if and where we can,” he said. “We were very pleased with the thoroughness and thoughtfulness of many of the comments made via Engage Bellingham and from our stakeholders and we are hopeful that will continue.”

In an example of a differently run process, the City of Lacey is also currently searching for a new police chief. Lacey’s local government hosted a virtual forum in June where community members were invited to submit questions and listen to each candidate’s response at the live event. Each candidate was asked about how they would address the issue of excessive force. Candidates spoke about training, accountability, looking at an officer’s background and the need for leaders in the force to document and take action when an officer uses unnecessary force.

Transparency is still of top concern to the Riveters and others in Bellingham.

“We believe that if the city provided more upfront information about the process and candidates, the mayor will be successful working with residents to select a police chief that meets the needs of our city,” Rodriguez said. “We’ll continue to push for a more transparent process next time.”

We welcome letters to the editor responding to or amplifying subjects addressed in the Salish Current. If you wish to contribute to Community Voices, please send an email with a subject proposal to Managing Editor Mike Sato (msato@rockisland.com) and he will respond with guidelines.