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Bellingham’s crime surge: no simple matter

Council mulls limited jail space, new legislation, lack of treatment

By Kai Uyehara News Intern

It’s no secret that crime is on the rise in Bellingham and that a slew of factors are at play, leaving law enforcement and city officials playing catch-up. That process continued Monday, as the City Council got a detailed report on the depth of the problem, while mulling some suggested solutions.

Monday’s City Council discussion touched on limited space at the Whatcom County jail, lack of treatment centers, officer morale and other issues. But crime statistics set the stage. 

Washington is in the 52nd percentile for average safety among its citizens, Whatcom County Prosecuting Attorney Eric Richey told the council, reporting crime incidents increasing in almost every category.

In the city, the average number of cases of aggravated assault are up 38.7% from 2019 to 2021, Bellingham Police Deputy Chief Don Almer said. Simple assault is up 10.4%, robbery is up 67.9% and motor vehicle theft is up 59%. Theft is down 17.7%, but Almer suspects people aren’t reporting such crimes, as he’s heard theft for businesses is “through the roof.”

Richey told the council he takes the numbers seriously.

“Public safety is the number one job for government,” Richey said. “We live in a wonderful community, it’s a special place, but if our citizens don’t feel safe … we as public servants are failing.”

For Richey, accountability is a core issue. Not everyone who commits a crime needs to be incarcerated, but refusing to hold criminals accountable permits the crime and doesn’t honor a commitment to our community, he said. 

Businesses aren’t stopping shoplifters under some new policies because it’s too expensive, Richey said. That makes finding perpetrators difficult and underreporting theft common, Richey said.

The lack of space at the county jail due to booking restrictions related to the COVID-19 pandemic makes individuals who are prosecuted less likely to be held there, as judges reserve space for the worst offenders, Richey said. The limited space is making criminals realize they won’t have to face consequences, added Richey, who said he considers booking an immediate form of accountability.

Richey and Almer also posited officer morale and numbers as a factor. National social movements are discouraging officers and police reform legislation “has increased potential civil liability for officers and increased the risk for decertification,” Richey said.

“The 2021 [state] police reform legislation restricted police’s ability to investigate crime, arrest, pursue and support people getting treatment,” he said. 

Officers are restricted from pursuing vehicles in many cases as well, which Richey said he believes may be a cause for the uptick in vehicle theft.

Addressing mental health problems and addiction are central factors in addressing crime, Richey added. Washington hasn’t created treatment centers in response to the 2021 Supreme Court case that reclassified many hard drugs as misdemeanors, he said.

“We need to do better for our communities by providing some treatment.” 

When council members discussed solutions such as creating a crime task force like that of Seattle, Richey told the council the “best opportunity for us locally is talking about a treatment facility.” 

Council member Daniel Hammill said Bellingham’s two treatment facilities — which have 16 beds for those with substance abuse, and 16 for those with mental health problems — aren’t sufficient and are experiencing workforce shortages. 

Richey asked the council to support new treatment facilities and said supporting police officers, acting strategically to secure a new county jail and voicing public safety concerns to legislators are all ways to address Bellingham’s crime increase.

Bellingham Mayor Seth Fleetwood closed the discussion, saying he believes things will get better. In the meantime, Fleetwood said his administration is working on a contract to secure more jail beds to book more people, that he’s written a joint letter with other local mayors supporting a new jail, and that hard work is being done to hire more police officers.

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