April 14, 2022
City of Bellingham police chief hiring process — success or flop?
Riveters Collective Justice System Committee

The City of Bellingham is expected to announce its final selection for a new police chief in May or June, after holding an online community forum with three semi-finalist candidates followed by finalist interviews in March. One civic action group is hoping new leadership will focus on community policing.

April 14, 2022
City of Bellingham police chief hiring process — success or flop?
Riveters Collective Justice System Committee

share:

The essays, analyses and opinions presented as Community Voices express the perspectives of their authors on topics of interest and importance to the community, and are not intended to reflect perspectives on behalf of the Salish Current.

Bellingham has been searching for a new police chief for 10+ months and recently interviewed the second round of finalists. The Riveters Collective’s Justice System Committee (JSC) followed this process carefully because the chief of police has the power to shape the culture of the department and a community’s relationship with the police. At times the City has one foot in the warrior mentality (sharp shooters at a homeless camp sweep, police tanks) while the other foot has a community-policing mentality (behavioral health officer on staff, bike patrol, foot patrol … most of which have been reduced or eliminated due to low staff).

We were disappointed in the process during the first candidate selection round because we felt the City did not sufficiently involve the community or make the process transparent. In response, we asked the City to improve in four specific areas, outlined below. Here’s how we feel the City did in this most recent effort:

  • Publicly announce information about final candidates with specific timeline for hiring: The City created an Engage Bellingham webpage for the chief hire, which included a timeline and a survey asking what people wanted in a new chief. While this was an improvement, the survey was again only available in English even though 12.4% of City residents aged five and older speak a language other than English at home. This approach left out a considerable portion of the City’s population, which has likely been historically marginalized and harmed by police, and lacks access for voicing their opinion. Improvement toward success.
  • Provide an interactive forum where the public can ask the final candidates questions: The City provided an online public forum where each candidate was allowed to answer questions generated from the community survey. After the forum, the City requested feedback about each candidate. We thought the virtual community question and answer process during the second round was well done and a vital part of transparency and community inclusion. However, allowing only three days for feedback was an unnecessary rushed timeline that kept many from participating. Improvement toward success.
  • Share cover letters and resumes for final candidates: The City claimed some of this information is confidential, but we found examples of other cities in Washington who shared more than the brief bios provided on Engage Bellingham. Flop.
  • Share any complaints on record for each candidate: Complaint records can paint a picture of how an individual officer interacts with community members. They are available via public record requests but cannot always be obtained in a timely manner. We received responses to our records request for most candidates in both rounds of interviews. We assume the City looked at any such records for all the candidates, too, and could have provided them with other candidate records. They chose not to do this. Flop.

Overall, we found the candidates seemed to possess qualifications traditionally required of a police chief; however, we advocate for police leadership that demonstrates a vision, capacity and strategies for generating cultural change within the department. The Bellingham Police Department’s policies and performance should be more consistently aligned with an inclusive public-safety-for-all, community-policing approach.

We have researched many police departments in the county for the past couple of years and have found Bellingham responsive up to a point. We hope the new chief, who the mayor will announce soon, will publish their goals including their plan for:

  • Equity and recruitment strategies
  • Changing police culture
  • Data transparency
  • Community oversight board

We’d like to see the new chief further strengthen community cohesion and be transparent and accountable to the public. Let the change begin!

— Contributed by Riveters Collective Justice System Committee

Salish Current welcomes letters to the editor responding to or amplifying subjects addressed by 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.

Donate to support nonpartisan, fact-based, no-paywall local journalism — Salish Current.