Bellingham seeks community feedback selecting next police chief
By Kelton Burns
“A police chief needs to understand the culture of the area,” said Michael Luna, a retired border patrol agent who lives in Bellingham. “It’s not a position where one size fits all.”
Luna hopes the city’s next police chief will put more effort into training officers to recognize different types of mental illness, he said.
Bellingham city officials are seeking this type of feedback from the community to consider when choosing the next police chief. A questionnaire was available from April 6 to April 16 for the community to leave feedback online at EngageBellingham.org.
According to the job posting, the police chief will report to the Mayor while providing leadership and direction to Bellingham Police Departments’ 188 employees.
The next police chief’s salary will be $166,092 annually.
“For a position like this that has a very obvious public interface, we want to know what’s important to the community and what kind of attributes they want to see in their police chief,” said Brian Heinrich, deputy administrator for the City of Bellingham.
Every community should be seeking input on their police chief selections, said Lorenzo M. Boyd, vice president for diversity and inclusion at New Haven University, who also happens to be a former police officer.
“It’s make-or-break to get community input because the police have to understand the lived experience of the people that they’re policing,” he said.
The job posting describes the work as including “significant community engagement.”
Boyd said it’s crucial for police to get buy-in from the community otherwise they lose levels of legitimacy.
“We need the police to feel like they are part of the community,” he said. “We need community members to buy-in and trust the police, so getting community members to be part of the process is the very first step at making that happen.”
Elizabeth A. Feingold, the director of human resources at Lake Whatcom Residential and Treatment Center, wrote her center has been “fortunate to forge some meaningful partnerships with members of the Bellingham Police Department.” She recognizes the importance and value of the police department’s behavioral health program for her agency and the clients she serves.
She would like to see the next police chief “committed to instilling the value that every member of our community deserves to be respected and receive support services within a framework of empathy.”
Last year, The Bellingham Herald reported that a group of Bellingham Police Department officers used a man with severe mental illness to pull a prank on a fellow officer who was off-duty.
Feingold wrote she was horrified by this news and that “the dehumanization of any person cannot be allowed.”
“We would like to see a leader that will support his or her officers in truly being “Committed to Community,” wrote Feingold. “Understanding that community is all of us, regardless of background and that a community can only be safe and healthy when all members of that community are protected.”
“In every interaction, an officer should start with this question: If this was my brother (sister, mom, daughter, etc.) how would I want this to go?” she wrote. Feingold wrote that regaining and maintaining the trust of the public will likely be the greatest challenge for the next police chief.
“We need a police chief who will be a partner in reform efforts that really prioritize community safety,” said Bellingham City Council Member Hannah Stone. “As the city discusses policy changes, we need to ensure that we have a police chief who is on board with those proposed changes.”
Some of those proposed changes include a 24/7 unarmed 911 crisis response team as well as increased oversight and accountability within the police department, she said.
She hopes the next police chief will be a partner and leader in those efforts.
Mary Stidham, a member of the Facebook group Bellingham Activism Volunteers, wants the next police chief to be different than the ones they have had in the past.
“I think that they need to work more transparently,” she said. “They need to have community input on a regular basis, such as a community group that he or she lends an ear to when making policy.”
Stidham is hoping for a new police chief who will be devoted to reforming the police in a positive direction and follow through with the changes. She also wants the new chief to approach the homeless situation the city is facing with more empathy and understanding. Stidham echoes Luna’s sentiments of the need for trained professionals to respond to calls related to a mental health crisis.
Karen Russel, another member of Bellingham Activism Volunteers, is hoping for accountability, integrity, commitment to personal antiracist development, and de-escalation among other characteristics in the next police chief.
“They should have a proven track record of elimination of the use of force by officers, disciplining and firing of officers who’ve engaged in misconduct, standing up to police unions and minimizing the scope of policing,” she said.
Russel is hoping the next police chief is committed to building towards a society that won’t need police to handle as many responsibilities. She would like to see them work on implementing programs like CAHOOTS instead, which provides “initial contact and transport for people who are intoxicated, mentally ill, or disoriented, as well as transport for necessary non-emergency medical care” according to the Eugene, Oregon Police Department’s website.
The city decided to pursue this feedback through their website due to COVID-19 preventing a larger community event where they would normally request this type of feedback.
Luna says the city should continue to offer ways for the community to give feedback remotely after the pandemic is over.
“Not every citizen is comfortable participating in city council meetings or gatherings but their voices need to be heard,” Luna said.
Officer Flo Simon was appointed as interim police chief while the city seeks a new police chief. She will be an integral part of the hiring process for a new police chief according to Mayor Seth Fleetwood. Interim Chief Simon has been with the Bellingham Police Department for 30 years and plans to retire in 2021.
The feedback collected will be reviewed and factored into the decision on who will be selected as the next police chief.
Kelton Burns is a reporter for The Front and a third-year Journalism: News/Editorial major. His work focuses on city news, usually related to City Council. He enjoys reading game reviews in his free time. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.