A panel of law enforcement officers, health experts and elected officials will appear at a town hall meeting in Bellingham Sept. 20 to address concerns over recent increases in crime downtown.
The town hall, hosted by the Downtown Bellingham Partnership and the Bellingham Regional Chamber of Commerce, will focus on recent changes to state law that officials say are partially responsible for higher crime rates.
Two Democratic state legislators will be on the panel: Rep. Alicia Rule from Blaine, who as a 42nd Legislative District lawmaker represents most of Whatcom County; and Rep. Alex Ramel, whose 40th District includes the rest of the county.
Also on the panel will be county Sheriff Bill Elfo, Bellingham Deputy Police Chief Don Almer, and Malora Christensen and Gail DeHoog from the Ground-level Response And Coordinated Engagement program, or GRACE, which seeks to stabilize the lives of people who frequently use emergency services.
The meeting will take place from 5–6:30 p.m. Sept. 20 in the Old City Hall Rotunda Room at Whatcom Museum, 121 Prospect St. Members of the public are asked to RSVP and submit questions through the Downtown Bellingham Partnership website. Meeting organizers will collect and present all questions to the panelists.
State legislation passed in 2021 limited law enforcement’s ability to pursue or use force against suspected criminals. While the Legislature fixed the use of force law in 2022, law enforcement remains hampered in its ability to pursue suspects.
“I have never seen criminals as emboldened as they are now,” Washington Association of Sheriffs and Police Chiefs executive director Steve Strachan said, after this year’s legislative session closed with no change to the restrictive police pursuit law. “Our mayors, law enforcement, and the community asked for help, and the Legislature made the specific decision to continue to allow for brazen contempt for the law.”
Additional legislation passed in 2021 reduced drug possession to a misdemeanor and required police to offer suspects a referral for a drug assessment instead of booking them into jail. Local officials say this change has led to blatant drug use on downtown Bellingham streets.