Elfo asks, why citizen oversight for community safety? Answers become apparent / Noisy Waters Northwest

August 2, 2017  Dena Jensen

On Saturday July 22, 2017 Community to Community Development posted a live-feed of their Family Forum for Community Safety that was held that evening at the Bellingham Public Library.

Near the end of the event, the facilitator, Rosalinda Guillen of Community to Community Devolopment, explained why she was being direct and public with this discussion.  She said that people are concerned about the federal government finding ways to impose immigration regulations and to make the county sheriff comply with immigration enforcement. Whatcom County Sheriff Bill Elfo responded, indicating that federal officials had already tried to exert pressure and impose regulations, but that his sheriff’s office had said no and that they would continue to say no to federal mandates.

Ms. Guillen affirmed that it was good that this was the sheriff’s position.

Meanwhile, during the course of the forum, Sheriff Elfo was resistant to the suggestion of a citizen oversight committee regarding interaction between law enforcement and Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agents. Similar to the response of the Whatcom County Council regarding the recent request from community members for an ordinance that would protect members of the immigrant community from immigration enforcement and police profiling, the sheriff asked, “And what incident is there that highlights the need for citizen oversight of law enforcement?”  Ms. Guillen responded to this question a few minutes later in the discussion with one of her own: “I guess what our question is, why does there have to be a need?  Why can’t it be like a preemptive community-building, better-relations-building model that moves us forward into the future?”

The Facebook event page for the forum had stated: “We have invited Sheriff Bill Elfo to this informal but in depth discussion to share what measures the county has and plans, in order to provide protection to our community in response to actions taken by the Trump administration.”

From this explanation, it seemed evident that the event would focus on what impacts that Federal statements and actions regarding immigration policy (amongst others that effect marginalized communities) are having on community members here in Whatcom County.  However, There seemed to be a concern from the Sheriff about what to expect in the forum from the start. Rosalinda Guillen stated early that the Sheriff had asked before the event started if the Family Forum for Community Safety was going to be a debate. She said it would not be a debate.  The forum proceeded with stories being recounted of undocumented individuals whose identities were protectively concealed that expressed their experiences with racial profiling, discrimination, detention, pursuit by ICE agents at our courthouse, and the sense of being fearful to directly relay their experiences with law enforcement.

During the course of the forum, Sheriff Elfo expressed disbelief that community members would feel too intimidated to bring their experiences to him. He said his sheriff’s office people are second to none, and that their children go to school with children from the undocumented community.  He expressed it is his job to serve the community and build trust with the community and have them not be fearful to report crime or victimization.  At one point, responding to a statement that undocumented community members were afraid to come forward he said:

 “I just went over and talked to about 300 spanish speaking people through an interpreter.  And none of them seemed to be scared. I was there in uniform and explained what we were doing to work with the community to solve criminal activity, and work closely to ensure their safety, and to let them have the trust that they need to come forward for the help they deserve, and not be afraid of law enforcement, and not raise their children to be afraid of law enforcement.”

But contrary to the sheriff’s own assurances and examples, participants in the forum continued to bring forth the message that community members, particularly those who are undocumented immigrants, are, in fact, afraid to come forward.  They shared how it is not enough to urge advocates and allies to bring people who are afraid forward to law enforcement agents, because advocates and allies may not always be there.  Ms. Guillen urged that things need to be built into the system to make sure people like undocumented immigrants can confidently come forward (for example, with complaints of harassment by ICE, discrimination, and other unfair treatment) without fear of reprisal.

The Sheriff struggled during the forum with the anonymous stories and the questions that those who read the stories asked of him at the end.  These questions were in regard to the issues the stories of discrimination and intimidation brought up. He expressed that he felt the stories were indictments of him and that if people in the audience, and over the Facebook live-feed, heard these stories, that it could make them afraid. Ms. Guillen and event participants attempted to reassure the sheriff that the stories were provided as context for the questions.  Event sponsors allowed the sheriff time to stray from the questions numerous times to talk about things he and the sheriff’s office were doing to try to instill confidence in law enforcement officers.

In light of these efforts to instill community confidence that Sheriff Elfo shared, and his accusations that the stories of community members could create fear, it may come as a surprise to some that a situation occurred at the forum that served to demonstrate how a fearful community atmosphere can, in fact, be created by law enforcement officials.

The incident arose near the end of “Raul’s Story” about a farmworker who was harassed by a white male who was yelling racial slurs at him and was physically blocking him from entering a laundromat.  An event participant named Carly went on reading the story:

“As white people, being harassed and threatened might prompt us to call the police, knowing that they will protect us.  Unfortunately, this farmworker does not have such privileges and knows that if he called the police they would show up and view him as the criminal or the threat instead of the victim. Despite racial profiling by his white neighbors and the police, and despite his disability, he remains positive and committed to being involved in the community. However, he has been listening to the news and has heard that activists are being targeted, detained, and deported all over the country. He was unwilling to be here tonight.

“So, over the past six months white supremacists have been more public and more threatening to people like Raul. Hate groups have multiplied, including the Proud Boys, who intimidate and threaten people of color here in Whatcom County.  People like Raul need your protection now more than ever. But after hearing about the struggles of Michelle Vendiola and the intensity that the Whatcom County Prosecutor has targeted her prosecution, Raul does not feel safe calling…”

Responding to the name just mentioned the Sheriff interrupted and this exchange ensued:

Sheriff Elfo:  “And could you repeat who that was you are talking about?”

Carly:  “Yeah, so Michelle Vendiola and the intensity that the Whatcom…”

Elfo: “What is, what is her crime?”

Carly: “We’ll go over…”

Elfo: “Is she the lady that blocked the freeway? That took the children up on the freeway and caused three serious accidents?  Is that who we are talking about?”

Thus, it turned out, just the mention of the name of Michelle Vendiola, a Bellingham resident who is an enrolled member of the Walker River Paiute Tribe of Nevada, caused the Whatcom County Sheriff to publicly put forth accusatory questions that could brand her as someone who brought children up onto a freeway, blocked it, and caused three serious accidents.  But, Ms. Vendiola has not been convicted of any such offenses, nor has she been criminally charged according to any online searches I performed. Is this not the very type of prejudgement of guilt that members of marginalized communities are afraid of? Is this not the kind of intimidation that would keep someone who is a target of federal actions to detain and deport people on the basis of their immigration status from candidly sharing any victimization they have been subjected to?

So this is where things stood at the end of the forum.  There was no acknowledgement by Sheriff Elfo of racial profiling or tendencies of law enforcement in our county to prejudge individuals as criminals before they are convicted.  There was no willingness expressed to build better relationships with the community by working to create a citizen oversight committee for law enforcement. There was disbelief expressed by the sheriff that members of marginalized communities would be afraid to come forward. And, Sheriff Elfo assured the live audience and those watching on Facebook that his sheriff’s office had “said no” and would continue to say no to federal mandates to comply with immigration enforcement.

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