Whatcom County Sheriff candidates spoke at Western Washington University’s campus on Tuesday, October 10, 2023.
The event was hosted by the Associated Students Office of Civic Engagement and was the first in a series of three forums, including the race for Whatcom County Executive and Bellingham Mayor.
Dan Purdy and Satpal Sidhu will speak at the second forum and Seth Fleetwood and Kim Lund will speak at the third.
Sheriff candidates Doug Chadwick and Donnell Tanksley aimed to appeal to student voters by addressing ten questions submitted to the AS OCE’s Instagram. Topics of discussion included safety, community, professional experience, homelessness and mental health.
The sheriff’s office has broader responsibilities than the police department. It manages county-wide services including law enforcement, investigations, correction services and emergency management, as well as a $41 million dollar budget from Whatcom County.
Former Sheriff Bill Elfo served the county for 20 years. He announced his plans to retire in a press release in March. Elfo shared his endorsement of Undersheriff Doug Chadwick, who has been with the Whatcom County Sheriff’s Office for over 29 years.
“I’m the only candidate for sheriff with the depth of experience and leadership who can step into the role of sheriff on day one, and ensure a seamless transition to preserve public safety and to meet our communities ever-evolving needs and expectations,” Chadwick said.
Donnell Tanksley is the current chief of police of Blaine, having served in the military for 22 years before working at the St. Louis Metropolitan Police Department in Missouri. He also worked as the assistant police chief at Western for 3 years. Tanksley said his diversity of experience makes him qualified to be sheriff.
“This is 21st century Whatcom County, and I believe we need a 21st century sheriff,” Tanksley said. “I spent my career trying to reduce incarceration and recidivism, I spent my career trying to help people be better people. As sheriff of Whatcom County, it’s my commitment to you to continue the relationships that I’ve built here on campus, and otherwise in Whatcom County.”
Both candidates were given two minutes to answer each of the 10 questions.
“When I go around, when I knock on doors, when I talk to people, always public safety, homelessness, drugs, are at the top of their list because it impacts so many other things in our community.” Chadwick said.
Chadwick’s solutions to these issues are to increase staffing to deter crime, reduce the amount of dangerous drugs in the community and to build a new jail. Both candidates support a new jail in Whatcom, despite voters' rejection of the measure and affiliated sales tax on the last two ballots.
Tanksley argued that Chadwick had 29 years to make a difference, and that the poor maintenance of the current jail occurred under his watch.
“I think it’s important as a law enforcement officer to get out in the weeds to see what’s going on, and you can’t do it from the office,” Tanksley said. “We also need to invest in proven programs. My opponent did talk about some programs, and I think that’s a good start, but we have to go further.”
Tanksley’s proposed solution is to ensure that every employee in the sheriff’s office is trained in mental health and deescalation. He believes Whatcom County needs to expand treatment facilities and divert people from jail when appropriate.
The sheriff candidate forum was moderated by Western fourth-year and AS OCE Director Mallory Schaefbauer, and Western fourth-year and AS OCE Local Issues Coordinator Gabby Laipenieks. The two started organizing the series of forums in early August.
The pair said they put a lot of energy into making the forums accessible. An ASL interpreter and live captionist were hired and the event was live streamed.
“Students are a part of the broader Bellingham community and the Whatcom County community, and we wanted it to be open to anybody,” said Laipenieks.
Part of Laipenieks’ job is attending city and county council meetings. Questions were derived from a mix of student feedback, items on the November ballot and topics she noticed were popular at meetings.
Fourth-year Western student Asher Schoepflin thought both candidates seemed like reasonable options, and appreciated the civility between the speakers.
“I personally agreed with a lot of the sentiments that came from Donnell [Tanksley],” he said. “I liked the different perspectives that he can bring to the table.”
The livestream of the event was recorded and is available for viewing online.
There is one more forum coming up. The Whatcom County Executive Forum was on Oct. 26. The Bellingham Mayor Forum is on Nov. 2 and will be held on campus in Fraser Hall 102.
Seddie LeBlanc (they/she) is a campus news reporter for The Front this quarter. They are a third-year journalism student at Western with a minor in law, diversity, and justice. In her free time, she enjoys reading and hanging out with friends. They can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.