Two armed security guards patrol the Bellingham Home Depot from open to close, safeguarding power tools and anything else of value thieves might try to get their hands on.
Meanwhile, at a much different type of store catering to organic-food lovers, the security company Risk Solutions Unlimited (RSU) keeps the peace at the Community Food Co-op’s two Bellingham locations. The city also hired RSU, in early 2022, to provide regular patrols throughout the downtown shopping district.
The hirings represent a trend in the wake of a significant spike in local thefts and other illegal activity. City and business leaders say the beefed-up security presence in Bellingham’s commercial areas is a response to growing concerns over unwanted behaviors both inside and outside of retail shops.
RSU has patrolled the Co-op’s Cordata and downtown stores for about a year now, working during business hours and providing “a presence overnight,” said Amy Esary, marketing and outreach director for the Co-op.
“They were hired for the safety of our staff and shoppers, and to help with bad behaviors we were seeing, such as drug use in our bathrooms,” Esary said in an email. “Thefts, drugs use and poor behavior have gone up.”
While the Co-op’s Forest Street store is technically in the Sehome neighborhood, it serves more as a part of City Center, Bellingham’s downtown core.
Thefts in the City Center neighborhood peaked in March 2022, according to the city’s crime statistics webpage — part of a broader citywide crime wave that hit Bellingham in the latter stages of the COVID-19 pandemic for a variety of reasons. Among them was overcrowding at the jail, which prompted the Whatcom County Sheriff’s Office to stop booking nonviolent offenders.
Also, the police department was short on officers, and new state laws made it more difficult for police to engage with suspected criminals.
In Bellingham’s Meridian neighborhood, which includes Bellis Fair mall and major retails such as Home Depot and Walmart, reported thefts peaked a little later, in the summer of 2022. The neighborhood averaged four reported thefts a day in June through August of last year.
However, police have said that thefts, especially at retail stores, are significantly underreported. Some retailers don’t bother reporting thefts at all, Bellingham Deputy Police Chief Don Almer said in a 2022 email.
“A lot of businesses, especially in the north end, have changed corporate policies to not report thefts any longer, or certainly to not detain,” Almer said. “Target, Marshalls, Home Depot, Sportsman’s Warehouse off the top of my head are examples.”
The shoplifting problem isn’t limited to Bellingham. Nationally, retail theft was growing before the pandemic, reaching $68.9 billion in stolen goods in 2019, according to the Retail Industry Leaders Association. A more recent survey by the National Retail Federation reported that overall shrinkage, which includes theft, damaged goods and other losses, reached $94.5 billion in 2021, up 4% compared to 2020, with much of that attributed to a rise in organized crime.
Bellingham officials believe Home Depot and other nearby stores in the Meridian neighborhood are victims of an organized retail theft operation working out of a homeless encampment at 4049 Deemer Road, a vacant lot behind Home Depot. The city filed a lawsuit against the property owner, Erwin Rommel, in November 2022, asking a judge to order a cleanup of the property, including removal of unhoused people trespassing there.
“WinCo Foods, Home Depot and Target have reported sharp increases in losses from theft,” the lawsuit states. “Trespassers are given lists of items to steal in exchange for drugs. These transactions occur at 4049 Deemer Road and amount to a criminal enterprise.”
When reached by phone, Rommel directed questions to his lawyer. Bellingham attorney Pete Dworkin, listed in court filings as Rommel’s representation in the lawsuit, did not return a phone call seeking comment.
Bellingham Police Lt. Claudia Murphy said May 4 the property owner had agreed to clean up the property, which is expected to happen the week of May 8–12.
Home Depot arms itself
Jeremy Davison, a manager at the Bellingham Home Depot, acknowledged in an interview that “the camp has been a concern,” adding that the store has had armed guards on site since late last year. He declined to comment on the recent spike in thefts or whether the security guards had reduced crime at the store.
Bellingham police paid certain officers overtime several weeks ago, Murphy said, to focus on theft cases.
“Several suspects were arrested and booked for their thefts during the emphasis patrol,” Murphy said. “They were quite surprised and not happy, some actually challenging arresting officers saying they ‘can't be arrested for this.’”
Murphy said police couldn't be sure the emphasis patrols helped with Bellingham's theft problem.
“The retail establishments would need to weigh in on whether their bottom line is still being affected by the vast amount of theft occurring,” she said.
“We don’t disclose numbers related to theft,” said Evelyn Fornes, senior manager of communications and advocacy for The Home Depot, via email.
“Organized retail crime is an ongoing issue, and it has been on the rise over the last several years for many retailers,” Fornes said. “We have a multitude of initiatives in place to mitigate, including human and technology resources, to make theft in our stores more difficult; close partnerships with law enforcement; and significant efforts working with federal and state task forces to fight this problem.”
RSU effectively patrols 24 hours a day in Bellingham’s downtown, through a $380,720 contract with the City of Bellingham for 2023. This includes regular patrols from 6 p.m. to 8 a.m., and emphasis patrols during daytime hours at Base Camp homeless shelter, the 22 North permanent supportive housing building, the library, City Hall and the Commercial Street Parking Garage.
RSU augments the work of Bellingham’s downtown ambassadors, who welcome and assist tourists, while also directing unhoused people to support services. The city hired the security company and launched the ambassador program more than a year ago, in response to concerns among business owners that the downtown had become less safe and less welcoming to their customers during the pandemic.
“Security patrols and safety ambassador services were, and remain, a vital component to Bellingham's response to increased nuisance and criminal behavior on our streets and in public spaces,” Jenny Hagemann, marketing and communications manager for Downtown Bellingham Partnership, said in a prepared statement.
Ambassadors have responded to 1,670 calls for assistance in their first eight months, Hagemann added.
“The demand justifies the need,” she said.
In an email, Bellingham Mayor Seth Fleetwood was more noncommittal about the work of the ambassadors and RSU.
“We are actively engaged in evaluating the ambassador program, private security services and other existing downtown initiatives, with business representatives and the Downtown Bellingham Partnership,” Fleetwood said.
A new downtown solutions workgroup that includes business leaders has begun meeting, Fleetwood said, “to consider additional ideas and services — all measures intended to support a vibrant, healthy downtown.”
This story was updated at 10:21 a.m. Monday, May 8 to include statements from Bellingham police about theft prevention efforts.