February 2, 2022
Hope isn’t a strategy: Bellingham again seeks a new police chief
Mike Sato

When former police chief David Doll retired a little over a year ago after 40 years of law enforcement service, the City of Bellingham began a search for a permanent replacement. An earlier round of interviews did not result in a new hire, but a new slate of applicants will begin the review process next week. (Photo © Amy Nelson)

February 2, 2022
Hope isn’t a strategy: Bellingham again seeks a new police chief
Mike Sato

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A little over a year ago, Bellingham police chief David Doll retired after 40 years of law enforcement service, prompting the city to recruit four chief finalists — all eventually rejected by Mayor Seth Fleetwood. Next Monday a new slate of applicants will begin the review process with the hope that a finalist will be chosen by May.

“Hope isn’t a strategy,” said Bellingham deputy administrator Brian Heinrich. “We’ve never failed to hire a department head on the second try and I really don’t think we’ll fail a second time.”

The recruitment and vetting process contracted with the consulting firm Prothman in 2021 was for $25,000 with a provision for an additional $7,000 if the recruitment had to be done again in 2022. The total contract is for $32,000 to recruit and winnow down a slate of 11 to 12 candidates to 3 to 6 finalists. As of Feb. 1, 10 applications had been submitted.

“It’s a tough time for policing but we have a good department and good people,” said Heinrich. “I’m hoping there are good candidates out there who didn’t apply the last time but now, after a year, see this as a good opportunity for advancement to chief.”

Leading the 188-person department in a city of about 90,000 residents comes with a police chief’s salary starting at $162,720 and topping out at $196,884. The department’s biennial budget is $70.4 million.

In competition for the best

At the other end of Puget Sound, the city of Olympia, population about 52,000, resumed its police chief search last month having halted its search last year after learning that one of its four finalists had assaulted a man and firing its search consultant. That city’s position is advertised at $192,177. 

Olympia has had two interim police chiefs since November 2019 and is also waiting for committee recommendations to the Reimagining Public Safety process for racial justice reforms that will improve policing and the criminal justice system.

Olympia police chief applications close on Feb. 14 and the city hopes to have panel and public town hall events in March and April and a police chief hired by May.

Bellingham, which used its Engage Bellingham website to gather public comments in its police chief search in 2021, will use those comments to develop interview questions to ask when semifinalists meet the community and stakeholders virtually after being introduced in March. The city anticipates a final selection by May or June.

“Generally speaking, we are pleased to see what appears to be a more community-involved process,” wrote Krystal Rodriguez, chair of the Riveters Collective Justice System Committee. The group had given the city a failing grade for the 2021 hiring process. 

Rodriguez expressed caution regarding whether the city will share with the community the semifinalists’ resumes, cover letters and any complaints and reprimands on record. “It’s also not clear how the virtual community and stakeholder engagement process will play out or if that process will include a wide range of questions posed by community members to the final candidates in a live setting,” she wrote.

The group wrote to the city and the mayor in early December and early January regarding recommendations and concerns about the hiring process and has posted their concerns on the Riveters’ webpage.

A police chief for all seasons

For an activist like local community organizer and educator Brel Frobe, the bar is high.

“Ideally, I would like for Bellingham to find someone who openly acknowledges the racist history of policing, from slave patrols to the current over-representation of people of color in arrest and jail numbers in Bellingham,” he wrote.

Frobe wants a chief who advocates for using public resources to help those victimized by the criminal justice system rather than using resources to arrest and incarcerate marginalized communities.

“Being a police chief is a tough job,” said Russ Whidbee, Bellingham resident and past city council candidate. “A police chief has to unite people, give them a sense that the police care about the community. There are lots of problems. I know, I’ve been there as an African American.”

For Whidbee, a police chief has to transcend and transform both how the police operate and how people see the police. “A chief has to go beyond the scope of his job and be a diplomat to the community,” he said. To “serve and protect” means being a service to the community. 

For Whidbee, that means investing in community policing and building trust by building the relationships with the people in the community.

Heinrich would agree about the emphasis on community. Asked what the city learned from the last hiring process, he said one thing was to allow more time for candidates to meet people, learn about Bellingham, meet the community.

“After all,” he said. “They are interviewing us as well.”

Reported by Mike Sato

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photo: Amy Nelson © 2022
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