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Search for new police chief postponed to fall

Four final candidates were all rejected as City Council, community members continue to shape future of policing in Bellingham

Bellingham, Wash., city council (left to right) Michael Lilliquist, Pinky Vargas, Hollie Huthman, Mayor Seth Fleetwood, Gene Knutson, Daniel Hammill, Hannah Stone and Lisa Anderson. The mayor and city council members are considering various forms of police oversight models in Bellingham. // Courtesy of Radley Muller

The city of Bellingham did not hire any of the four finalists from a recent search for a new police chief.  

City Council and citizens alike are continuing to plan the future of policing in Bellingham despite not knowing the direction the next police chief will take. 

On June 14, a city statement cited the search did not find an individual who met the city and community vision for the future of the Bellingham Police Department.  

“For the search that just concluded, we took many steps to attract a diverse pool of candidates,” said Janice Keller, communications director for the city of Bellingham.  

“Our efforts included reaching out to 676 police chiefs and deputy chiefs in 17 states,” Keller said. “In addition, advertisements for the position appeared in municipal associations in Washington, Oregon, Idaho and California, and in multiple organizations that serve women and people of color in law enforcement.”  

The city received only 13 applicants of which four were identified as finalists. 

“Bellingham is no different than cities across the nation struggling to recruit for their departments,” Keller said. “This will continue to be a challenge as we renew our search later this year.”  

According to the June 14 statement, the city is planning another selection process for late fall 2021. 

Interim Police Chief Flo Simon agreed to extend her temporary duties until the end of the year. 

City Council President Hannah Stone said the city hired consulting company Prothman to aid in the search. 

The company participated in the successful recruitment of police chiefs in 27 cities including Marysville, Ferndale, Arlington and Lake Stevens, Washington, according to Prothman. 

In April, city officials asked citizens to provide feedback for what they would like to see in a new police chief on the Engage Bellingham platform. 

Many citizens highlighted the need for better mental health and addiction care.  

Joey Rogerson is a Western Washington University alumnus who shared his thoughts on his ideal future for policing in Bellingham with The Front. 

Rogerson said he believes the police are a reactionary force that respond to problems. He said funding would be better allocated to social programs and services. 

Fred Leason is another Bellingham resident who shared his thoughts on mental health responses. 

“Distinguish between a potential crime and a mental health crisis,” Leason said. “They have an initiative to that end. A chief would need to recognize that not every situation requires an authority figure with a gun.”  

Keller spoke on this importance of community engagement in the process. 

“Nearly 200 people responded,” Keller said. “We incorporated themes from those responses into the interview questions our several interview panels used to assess the final candidates in a process that extended over four days.”  

Prothman also interviewed various internal stakeholders including Stone.   

Stone said she met with a Prothman consultant on Zoom for an hour in early March. That was the extent of her involvement. 

“In addition to initiating a new recruitment process, the balance of this year will include important steps for law enforcement, including the city considering a police oversight model and strategy,” according to the June 14 statement.

City Council has begun developing these potential models. 

Councilmembers met on June 21 to discuss the models of nine similarly populated cities around the country.  

Some cities possess functions to review police policies and practices. Some have an audit function and additional oversight entities. 

These included an office of civilian review. 

The accountability board in Berkeley, California has authority to review, audit and investigate. They have subpoena power and retain their own council. 

Councilmember Michael Lilliquist represents the 6th Ward and serves with the county’s Homeless Strategies Workgroup. He stated his goals from the oversight project. 

“We’re looking for transparency,” Lilliquist said. “We’re looking for trust building. We’re looking for improved outcomes. We’re looking for better policing in the right way at the right time.” 

Lilliquist discussed the decision whether the board should serve simply to review and make recommendations or have power to audit the police department. 

“At minimum we need to have a review component,” Lilliquist said. “We can build on year after year that audit component.” 

Multiple city councilmembers expressed the need for more community feedback. 

"It sounds like we’d like to invite a lot more input into this process as well, and I’m curious what the next steps are, how we go about that,” Hollie Huthman, councilmember at large said. 

If you would like to give council members feedback on the process, their contact information is available on the city website at https://cob.org/gov/council/contacts-bios


Brooklyn Castellani-Kelsay

Brooklyn Castellani-Kelsay (they/she) is a second year Interdisciplinary student and newly minted reporter at The Front. Their work focuses mainly on community issues in Bellingham and Whatcom County. In her spare time they enjoy the outdoors, gardening, music, soccer, and baseball. They can be reached at brooklyncastellani.thefront@gmail.com or castela3@wwu.edu 


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