October 7, 2021
Election 2021: City, county candidates vary on police reform needs, approaches
Stella Harvey

Conversations as to what police reform should entail were sparked by calls last year including “defund, disarm the police,” as in one sign at a June 2020 rally in Bellingham’s Marine Heritage Park attended by thousands in support of Black Lives Matter. (Salish Current photo)

October 7, 2021
Election 2021: City, county candidates vary on police reform needs, approaches
Stella Harvey

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Remember the Black Lives Matter marches and protests last summer calling for de-escalating police violence, reforming community policing and improving accountability and transparency in policing? What would the campaigns be like if this year’s Bellingham City Council and Whatcom County Council elections were being held with those issues on the front burner? (See: “’Defund the police’ movement drives Whatcom racial justice discussions,” Salish Current, Aug. 14, 2020)

Urgency around police reform and public safety has not brought people to the streets this year, but voters have the opportunity to weigh in on what approach their local officials should take when it comes to local policing and public safety.

The Nov. 2 election will decide four county council seats, three of which are contested, and four city council seats, two of which are contested. 

Through budget and public safety oversight — and bully pulpits — city and county leaders give shape and form to how policing and public safety will be for area residents. From calling for systemic societal changes to standing with the status quo and working within the current system for change, candidates shared their stands with Salish Currentabout the challenges and opportunities of community policing.

(Editor’s note: City council candidate Russ Whidbee did not respond to Salish Current‘s interview inquiries; Hollie Huthman and Skip Williams are both running unopposed for their respective seats. County council candidates Tyler Byrd and Rebecca Lewis did not respond to our interview inquiries; Todd Donovan is running unopposed for the district two council seat.)

Too many expectations

Kristina Michele Martens, a candidate for Bellingham City Council’s at-large position, views police departments as being one of the last safety nets in communities across the country. Martens, a vocal advocate for racial equity in Bellingham, helped organize protests calling for racial justice and co-founded the Whatcom Racial Equity Commission

Martens believes that, while social services were defunded and reduced over the last 50 years, expectations for what police departments across the country should handle have grown. She said this leads to people who need access to support and basic services encountering police more.

Eve Smason-Marcus, a candidate for Ward 6 on the Bellingham City Council running against incumbent Michael Lilliquist, agrees.

“I think police are seated with just this huge responsibility of taking care of everything and that’s too much for anyone to handle. We shouldn’t have to rely on one department to provide mental health services, de-escalation and traffic control,” said Smason-Marcus, a longtime community organizer in Bellingham currently serving on the boards of directors of the Bellingham Unity Committee and Whatcom Human Rights Task Force.

Calls for police reform were echoed at several rallies last year, including a rainy march through downtown Bellingham in mid-June. (Salish Current photo)

Kaylee Galloway and Eddy Ury are contending for the District One Whatcom County Council seat. Galloway, who has worked for Sen. Maria Cantwell and Rep. Suzan DelBene, supports efforts at police reform that focus less on punishment and more on restorative justice and connecting community members to support services. 

Ury, who is Climate and Energy Policy Manager for RE Sources for Sustainable Communities and a volunteer representative on the county’s Climate Impact Advisory Committee, agrees that investing in other emergency services would better help community members.

“I just think we need to support a broad range of things, and that means making an investment in the community that will prevent crime … but not create the cycle of harm that can occur through our carceral system,” Ury said.

Kamal Bhachu describes himself as not a career politician but as someone who thought, “why not me?” last year after seeing the turmoil around police and public safety. He is running against incumbent Barry Buchanan for one of two Whatcom County Council at-large seats. 

Bhachu supports the Whatcom County Sheriff’s office, and believes that the department is effective at enforcing the laws and keeping people in the county safe.

“I haven’t come across anyone who isn’t doing their job correctly. I believe our department is very good at holding their police officers or deputies accountable,” Bhachu said.

Old and new programs

Over the last year and half, community members called for both the city and county council to implement a broad range of police reforms. City and county officials point to long-standing and newly developed programs as efforts to address issues around public health and safety. 

Buchanan, a former Bellingham city council member, is seeking reelection to his third county council term. Over the last year, Buchanan said, the city and county have created an alternative response team comprised of a police officer and a behavioral health professional. 

The team will utilize the newly opened Crisis Stabilization Center and respond to emergency calls pertaining to mental health crises as well as calls where an armed police response is not needed. 

The team will be a part of the Ground-level Response and Coordinated Engagement (GRACE) program, a diversion strategy intended to provide people who frequently come in contact with emergency services with access to support services.

Buchanan said that, in the second phase of the program, the police officer will be replaced with an emergency medical technician, making the team fully unarmed. 

“The role of police in the community is much broader than turning on your siren and arresting [people]. It’s offering much more of a helping hand to the community. I really think and I’ve experienced firsthand that law enforcement in Whatcom County is a very willing participant in those kinds of programs,” Buchanan said. 

Independent review

Galloway and Ury both said they support the GRACE program and Crisis Stabilization Center. Along with investing in new programs, Ury said he thinks the county needs to create more mechanisms for accountability. 

“I don’t think people trust that there’s any way to effectively report and get some independent investigation or review,” Ury said. “I’d like for people to know that if they had a bad experience with enforcement where there’s any kind of misconduct that they can come to me as a council member and know that there’ll be questions asked and an investigation can be done.”

Michael Lilliquist, who is seeking re-election to his fourth term on the Bellingham City Council, said the city is currently in the early stages of developing a civilian oversight board that would review use of force and other incidents to evaluate if and how they were investigated, and review patterns of policing in the county to help identify potential changes to police practices.

Martens, however, thinks change needs to go deeper and that the only way to address issues like the use of force and inequitable policing practices is to examine every aspect of policing, from training to leadership and beyond. She said she thinks it will be key for everyone at the table to be willing to admit when practices aren’t working in order to create long lasting change.

“I don’t think it’s a matter of just tweaking their training. I don’t think it’s a matter of just having a couple more diversity hires. It’s really sitting down and diving into the work,” Martens said.

Reforms and response

Among the police reform bills passed last session by the legislature — limiting police use of force, requiring the report of excessive use of force, limiting interrogation of juveniles and requiring more robust data collection — House Bill 1310 has proven most problematic. The new law took effect this July and restricts use of force to circumstances where police can make an arrest based on probable cause, to prevent escape or to protect themselves or others against a threat of harm.

In response, police have not responded to certain 911 dispatch calls or not assisted social workers on the streets requesting assistance. (See “Police, mental health workers face challenge, confusion with new use-of-force law,” Salish Current, Aug. 20, 2021)

Marchers protesting police practices and systemic racism took their message to Bellingham City Hall in June 2020. This year, voters will send a message via the ballot box with council member elections. (Salish Current photo)

“My biggest concern is that [police officers] haven’t been able to do their jobs correctly because of some of the newer legislation,” Bhachu said.

Bhachu is also concerned by the State Supreme Court’s recent ruling in State v. Blake which decriminalized possession of small amounts of drugs. Subsequently, the state Senate passed Senate Bill 5476, which recategorized drug possession as a misdemeanor instead of a felony, and established that before someone can be charged with a crime, he or she must be diverted to other services at least twice.

“It all comes down to how our legislators are writing laws,” Bhachu said. “What’s coming out of Olympia is not really helping anybody. It’s making things worse.” 

Ury is supportive of both the Blake decision and HB 1013, and believes that limiting the use of force by police officers and decriminalizing small amounts of drug possessions are positives for community members in Whatcom County. 

Criminalizing people with low-level drug charges and using force on individuals who are experiencing a mental health crisis should not be the goal, Ury said. Instead, he wants the county council to focus on providing services to all community members and making sure people are safe.

Martens said change must go deeper. To address issues like inequitable policing practices and the criminalization of community members experiencing houslessness or mental health crises, she wouldn’t solely look at policing. Martens said she would seek to examine disparities in housing, access to healthcare and more, alongside policing, in order to identify what isn’t working, so the council can work to improve all systems that lead to the overutilization of police.

“We’ve got to look at everything. There are so many pit stops on the way to somewhat having to interact with the police on any given day,” Martens said. “We have to look at where we need to be putting in more funding so that the first and last stop isn’t the police every single time.”

New police chief — round two

Before the end of the year, the City of Bellingham will begin its second attempt to hire a new police chief. The new hire will replace Interim Chief Flo Simon, who has served as head of the department since January. A first round concluded last spring without a hiring.

Martens said she would like to see the new police chief come from a city similar in size to Bellingham and have experience implementing systemic changes within a department.

“We need someone who believes in doing things differently [and] believes that there is an issue with the system and that we have to take drastic measures to be able to say that police defend and protect all citizens of their community equally,” Martens said. 

Samson-Marcus said the next police chief should have lived-experience implementing a wide variety of training.

“I would love to see a police chief that has experience in education, public [and] health training, de-escalation training,” Smason-Marcus said. “I want a police chief who also wants that training for their department.”

Lilliquist wants a police chief who can be a change agent from the inside and is willing to work to get police officers on-board with the reforms and changes the community is advocating for.

“We need our police to be part of the solution,” Lilliquist said. “I would like to see a police chief who understands that and knows that the police need to be rowing in the boat along with us in the same direction. “

Information — before you vote

League of Women Voters of Bellingham-Whatcom County election forums for Whatcom County Council and Bellingham City Council positions can be viewed online here.

Bellingham City Club online forums for county council and city council candidates can be viewed here.

The Riveters Collective, an organization dedicated to engaging community members with local government through advocating for issues, will present “New Police Reform Laws: Legislative Intent and Community Impact,” an online forum and Q&A with legislators, law enforcement and community leaders on Oct. 13 at 7 p.m. Register here.

— Reported by Stella Harvey

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