The Bellingham Police Department posted decals on one of their cruisers to advertise for new recruits, a response to their shortage in officers. Bellingham’s force is among others in the county dealing with applicant shortages and unfilled positions. (Kai Uyehara photo © 2022)

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Police departments throughout Whatcom County are seeing their ranks thinning and application pools drying up. The result is a shortage in officers, which while having many causes, has forced the police to adapt their work, recruitment and retention strategies. 

Bellingham Police Department has 122 full-time police officer positions but is down 28 positions. Fourteen of the positions are not on active duty and 14 are vacant, Deputy Chief Don Almer said. 

The Whatcom County Sheriff’s Office is down five positions out of their allocated 90 and anticipating eight to ten more resignations within a year, said Sheriff Bill Elfo.  

The Ferndale Police Department is not short-staffed — for the first time in nine months, said Chief Kevin Turner. The Blaine Police Department is fully staffed, said Chief Donnell Tanksley, but every department is seeing significantly fewer applicants. 

 “At times we used to receive well over 100 candidates seeking a single position,” Elfo said of the sheriff’s office shortage. “We now are lucky to have three to four.” 

Local police are also seeing fewer current officers move from other departments to their own, and there are fewer prospective officers taking physical and written tests administered through Public Safety Testing and being put on recruitment lists. Departments are competing against each other for candidates as many people apply to several places, Turner said. 

Other Washington law enforcement agencies offer either incentives such as entry-level and lateral-hiring bonuses and retention bonuses. “Whatcom County currently does not offer these incentives,” said Elfo.

New strategies 

To address staff and applicant shortages, police departments are adopting new strategies to recruit and retain their officers.  

The sheriff’s office pays applicants for their Public Safety Testing costs if they apply to Whatcom County. The department is working to expedite the hiring process and advertising over sports radio.  

Bellingham Police Lieutenant Claudia Murphy said the department has created a new position of recruiting sergeant and formed a recruiting committee of existing officers. They’ve revamped their website to boost its hiring page, rebranded a cruiser with hiring signage and advertised via radio, social media and recruiting fairs. 

“Before, we just stood on our reputation,” Murphy said. “But now, we have a sergeant in charge of our recruiting and he does a lot of marketing and he has … applied for some grants.” 

Local police departments, however, still rely on word of mouth to entice recruits, Turner said. “Hopefully your brand or your name will speak for itself.” 

George Floyd factor

The trend toward fewer applicants may be attributed to negative views of the police, said Turner, particularly after the murder of George Floyd by a police officer in 2020.

“It does have an effect on young people coming out of college, wanting to be in a profession that is in the news every single day, being told that they are no good and that they are overpaid and none of them should be there,” said Murphy. 

Many local police chiefs said anti-law-enforcement attitudes discourage new officers and those currently serving. Turner said the Ferndale Police Department has lost an officer due to such viewpoints on the part of the public.

On the other hand, his department also put an officer on leave last October after a BuzzFeed investigation uncovered the officer’s contact with the OathKeepers, a far-right extremist group involved in the insurrection at the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6.

Following the death of Floyd, local activist organizations Racial Justice Coalition, Whatcom Civil Rights Project and Imagine No Kages demanded a 50% reduction of the Bellingham Police Department budget and reallocation of those funds to other crisis response services. [Read more: “’Defund the police’ movement drives Whatcom racial justice discussions,” Salish Current, May 14, 2020.]

Activists echoing the “defund” cry sought to decrease police involvement in non-dangerous incidents involving drug-dependent and mentally ill individuals, as well as to address tensions between police and Black and indigenous people. 

Vernon Damani Johnson, retired Western Washington University political science professor, said Bellingham is easier to exist in comfortably as a Black man, but in other cities he’s lived in, he frequently experienced fear when seeing police in public.

Immigrants in Whatcom County, particularly immigrants of color, also feel unsafe when they see police, fearing their authority and connection with border control, said Australia Tobon, member of Bellingham’s Immigration Advisory Board.

Policing reform legislation

State legislation in the aftermath of George Floyd’s murder limited the use of force by police in de-escalation situations and limited police “hot pursuit.” Both were opposed by police chiefs and sheriffs. Despite legislative action in 2022 which clarified when force could be used in de-escalation situations and allowed hot pursuit with prudence of a fleeing suspect, some police officers remain opposed to reform legislation, and Turner said the reforms still drive away some candidates.

Elfo believes the reforms make police work harder by increasing officers’ exposure to civil and criminal liability and losing their certification, and by confusing officers on their authority and responsibilities.

Police also objected to the State v. Blake Washington State Supreme Court decision which voided all cases for drug possession and didn’t like the state law that followed classifying possession of controlled substances as a misdemeanor rather than a felony. Murphy calls giving precedence under the new law to treatment over arrest harmful in all regards. Jail time is a way for users to receive court-ordered treatment services, she said.

For some like Johnson, the police and the community can get more benefit from expanding funding for diversion programs and crisis services such as GRACE and LEAD that aim to divert some incidents away from police action.

The GRACE program serves people who cycle through jail, homeless shelters and emergency medical services due to mental illness, disability, substance abuse or other issues by connecting them with case managers to access resources. GRACE also works with law enforcement to respond to those in crises.

Bellingham police Lieutenant Claudia Murphy offers a woman a card with information on substance abuse treatment services. (Kai Uyehara photo © 2022)

Similarly, LEAD assists the mentally ill, impoverished and drug-dependent who commit low-level crimes to avoid incarceration. LEAD helps people access necessities and connects them with case managers. The program’s mission includes addressing racial disparities in the criminal justice system and reducing policing.

The Homeless Outreach Team, HOT, regularly visits homeless encampments to establish relationships and connect people with services, said Teri Bryant, director of Whatcom Homeless Outreach Center. HOT doesn’t ask people to move, but informs them that the city may. If someone needs more care, responders connect them with a provider,and call police only if a situation is dangerous or a law is being broken.

Short-staffed

Bellingham police have dealt with staff shortages by eliminating special units such as motorcycle patrol and teams that specialize in behavioral health, schools, transit and neighborhood outreach. The Whatcom County Sheriff’s Department suspended their neighborhood deputy program and traffic unit and has shortages in their corrections bureau. 

Eliminating special teams means officers have less time to engage with the community and build trust and relationships, said Tanksley, as officers are only on patrol and responding to emergencies. 

In Ferndale, different communities with different needs also may not see specialized, quality service, Turner said.

To free up time, lower priority calls receive less police response when officers are diverted to high emergency situations, Murphy said.

However, responding to fewer calls has been a cry from police reform activists who believe police should cede to other crisis response services, particularly homelessness and mental and behavioral health calls. 

Staffing shortages are not unique to local police departments but are a state and national problem, and the shortage of trained professionals and workers exist in many sectors of the economy. 

When departments are short-staffed, officers also face burnout. Bellingham and Whatcom County police departments have mandated overtime. Officers are working days off to fill vacant slots.

How long current police staffing can deliver and maintain quality community service depends on how well police departments adapt to a changing community and how well a community shapes its police force.

Trust factor

A prospective police officer like McLain Jokinen, a recent Western Washington University graduate and aspiring Washington State Patrol officer, has not been discouraged from applying. Jokinen wants to build community trust with police and believes police are necessary for community safety, but that policing needs to be adaptable so that their service changes as the community does. 

Activist Johnson is hopeful that local police departments will hire qualified staff who understand the communities they are serving and that the force will reflect racially diverse faces in a county with an increasing number of racial minorities. 

For Tanksley, the quality of life for serving officers is elevated when police and the community have mutual trust and a good relationship, which is a good basis for retention. 

For Murphy, critical perceptions of police and legislative police reform over the past two years have changed the policing landscape. Part of adapting to the circumstances of staffing shortages is up to individual officers.  

“Morale, quite frankly, is an individual’s choice,” she said. “You can give into the negative attitudes around you and you can let that drive your morale down, or you can do things about it overall.” 

For the community, Johnson encourages people who want to see a change in policing to keep officers accountable.  

Making a change “requires consistent and unstinting vigilance on the part of the people in the community,” Johnson said. “It’s not just protesting like we did a couple of summers ago. It’s about rolling up your sleeves and being engaged for the long term to get a serious resolution to these problems.” 

 — Reported by Kai Uyehara

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