Speaking power to truth: current law enforcement public relations in Bellingham and Whatcom County / Noisy Waters Northwest

Click the graphic of a black police car with white and blue lettering and white and blue striping to access a June 24, 2020 KGMI radio news extra on Bellingham Police Department’s “Police Perspective” video series

July 30, 2020  Dena Jensen

Since the body count of victims of unjust killings by police officers culminated with the slaying of George Floyd by Minneapolis police officers in late May this year, community members in various areas of Whatcom County have been calling more intensely for numerous types of law enforcement and justice changes aimed at eliminating racist, discriminatory, biased, violent, militaristic, unjust, or unnecessary law enforcement actions. Increasingly, voices of local law enforcement officials are resounding in response.

On Friday, July 24, 2020, Officer Jon Knutsen appeared on a brief KGMI radio news segment talking about his Police Perspective video series for the Bellingham Police Department.  These videos are available on the Bellingham Police Department’s YouTube channel which has a total of seven videos posted to it, four of which have been posted in the last four weeks.  

The four Police Perspective videos address various community calls for action, such as use of force, police bias, defunding the police, mental and behavioral health services, and 8 Can’t Wait policing policies. Near the end of the KGMI segment about these videos, Officer Knutsen had said: 

“And a few people have commented, you know, that it comes across as propaganda – or copaganda is probably my favorite play on words – but I, and I, again, I understand where they’re coming from but I think it’s kind of sad that us trying to share…how we’re trying to be positive in the community, I think it’s a little bit sad that that comes across as propaganda. We’re just trying to answer back to some of the negativity that we’re just being inundated with right now.”

In fact, local law enforcement leadership seems to be answering-back with a vengeance to community demands for change which are being presented, from Knutsen’s perspective in his comment above, as negativity. 

What seems consistent in the messaging of all the videos and law enforcement appearances are police department and sheriff office answers and perspectives that reflect that any actions requested by BIPOC and other marginalized community members do not need to be taken by them or they are already in charge of developing the solutions. Despite an occasional remark that they are open to what the community has to say, the sense is that these agencies feel they already have everything covered.

Rewinding to Bellingham Police Department activity in 2015

Incidentally, the last video on the Bellingham Police Department YouTube channel prior to the recent videos in Police Perspective series, was from June 20, 2015 and was the video showing Officer Zackery Serad’s body cam footage of the Alfredo Juarez traffic stop.  

This body cam footage was featured in the October 11, 2015 Bellingham Herald article, “Bellingham Police release body cam video in racial profiling complaint,” which described the footage and noted that the officer – after spending some time determining Alfredo “Lelo” Juarez, a fifteen year old youth involved in a traffic stop, did not have a current drivers license – took Juarez out of the car, “and asks about his immigration status.”

Here was an incident of collaboration between the Bellingham Police Department and immigration enforcement agents that landed Alfredo Juarez in the Northwest Detention Center, two hours away in Tacoma. Juarez was held overnight without a call from officers to his parents to check on his identification or notify them that he had been locked up. This chain of events became a high profile example of police practices that have spurred immigrant advocacy groups and other community members to call for civilian oversight of local law enforcement.

Since that time, and after a failed effort to have Bellingham City Council adopt an ordinance that would provide for civilian oversight of law enforcement in Bellingham, farmworker and immigrant advocacy group, Community to Community Development – whose leader Rosalinda Guillén was on the panel of the July 1, 2020, Whatcom County Racial Justice Forum – along with many community members, waged a three year campaign seeking to bring civilian oversight of law enforcement to fruition.

At that July Racial Justice Forum, there was discussion between Rosalinda Guillén and BPD Deputy Chief Flo Simon about civilian oversight.

The discussion begins at the 01:29:47 mark:

Rosalinda Guillén: “But I’ll tell you right now, there’s no trust for my community in local law enforcement. There’s no trust when local law enforcement is so closely tied to Homeland Security on the border, I mean, there’s a whole different culture out there in a whole different communication system where people talk to each other. In order to change the system, there’s got to be more transparency. It’s got to be clearer. It’s in , you know, you talk about how it’s transparent. Now all of these policies that we’re talking about, that we read about, banning the choke holds, and the training, that doesn’t mean anything if there isn’t civilian oversight to ensure that this is actually going in the right direction and making a difference to the community living in every single neighborhood. If I go and talk to my community now, none of this is making any difference for the better. I’m sorry, that is the reality. There is not trust in local law enforcement.

Deputy Chief Simon: “I won’t disagree with you, Rosalinda, and citizen oversight is one of those conversations that’s being had in our police department, in our city council, in the Mayor’s Office, so we’re looking at what that looks like, There are different models out there. We welcome – 

Rosalinda Guillén: “So, having the police look at what citizen oversight is, it should be the citizens, the community looking at what citizen oversight is, not law enforcement, so that we better, like, do that – turn that around a little bit. Having the police police themselves – in charge of their own oversight – doesn’t give me any confidence that there’s really gonna be any change made.”

Also relevant to this subject of oversight of law enforcement, BPD’s public communications officer, Lieutenant Claudia Murphy recently outlined to a community member during a phone call, the nature of what has been referred to as an outside agency which independently conducts investigations of Bellingham Police Department use of force incidents. This agency has been referenced by BPD Chief Doll and others at Bellingham City Council meetings.

Lt. Murphy indicated that when there is an occasion where some use of force incident requires investigation, that other law enforcement agencies are in charge of that investigation in the form of the Law Enforcement Mutual Aid Response Team (LEMART). If just BPD is involved in an incident, for example, then Whatcom County Sheriff’s office might conduct the investigation. If BPD and Whatcom County Sheriff’s Office are both involved, then Ferndale Police might be the agency conducting the investigation.

There is also a BPD policy, Policy 301, that describes an internal administrative review that occurs, both after the LEMART investigation and after the Whatcom County Prosecutor’s office reviews the LEMART investigation. This City of Bellingham announcement, “Officers cleared in December 2018 Arroyo Park shooting,” gives their accounting of the process in that specific 2018 case.

According to Lt. Murphy, no civilians are involved in the process at all at this point – and she expressed her perspective that civilians could not possibly be informed or trained enough on the complexities of law enforcement policies/actions to adequately investigate use of force incidents.

So, here we are with agencies granted some of the highest pinnacles of power in our community, using that elevation to propel their power outward, rather than pulling in and processing truth from the community, to whom, in BPD’s case, their motto says they are committed.

Below are links to some of law enforcement’s proffering of recent public relations output that has shown up at civic meetings, on social media, and on radio broadcasts over the last couple months:

June 22, 2020 Bellingham City Council Committee Of The Whole 

Review of Bellingham Police Use of Force Policy
Meeting Blurb: “Bellingham Police Chief David Doll introduced the presentation. Deputy Chief Flo Simon shared her experience in the Bellingham Police Department. Leuitenant Don Almer provided an informational presentation on the Bellingham Police Department’s Use of Force Policy. Council asked questions and had a discussion following the presentation.”


June 26, 2020 Liberty Live – Conversations with Kris Halterman on the LIberty Road Facebook page, “Re-imagining Public Safety through Law Enforcement and Mental Health” 

Video Blurb: “Chief David Doll, Sherriff [sic] Bill Elfo, and Mike Hudson, Ex. Dir of REACH will join me to talk about public safety, law enforcement and public/mental health needs.”

Transcript of the Facebook video:

July 2, 2020 Appearance by BPD Deputy Police Chief Flo Simon at the Whatcom Racial Justice Forum, July 1, 2020

Forum Blurb: “A diverse panel of community leaders and social activists discuss racial justice issues in Whatcom County. Panelists are Jonathan Randolph – Entrepreneur and Professional Singer, Shirley Williams – Member and resident of Lummi Nation, Flo Simon – Deputy Police Chief, Bellingham  Police Department, Rosalinda Guillén – Community to Community, Satpal Sidhu – Whatcom County Executive. Moderated by J Lee Cook. Sponsored by Bellingham Friends Meeting”

July 1, 2020 Bellingham Police Perspective Project / 20E1: Race, Policing & Defunding the Police

Episode Blurb: “2020/EPISODE 1: In this episode, Officer Knutsen sat down with Deputy Chief Simon to talk about race, police culture and the impact of defunding the police. ‘Deputy Chief Simon was my first Sergeant when I started at BPD 20 years ago. I learned a lot from her back then, and I couldn’t think of anybody better to sit down with and talk about these tough issues.’ – Officer Knutsen”

July 6, 2020 Bellingham Police Department Facebook page post

First line of Facebook post: “An awesome summer afternoon of basketball and conversation with Officer Subia and a young hoops player.”

July 8, 2020 Bellingham Police Perspective Project / 20E2: Use of Force

Episode Blurb: “2020/EPISODE 2: In this episode, we discuss the topic of use of force and address common questions and misconceptions. Use of force issues have the potential to create great mistrust between law enforcement and the communities they serve, so we hope people will find this episode both helpful and informative.”

July 14, 2020 Bellingham Police Perspective Project / 20E3: 8 Can’t Wait

Episode Blurb: “020/EPISODE 3: In this episode, we continue the conversation relating to Use of Force and specifically discuss the 8 Can’t Wait campaign.”

July 22, 2020 Bellingham Police Perspective Project / 20E4: Behavioral Health Team

Episode Blurb: “2020/EPISODE 4: The number of social service related calls that police officers respond to has increased dramatically in recent years. In this episode we look at the Bellingham Police Department’s Behavioral Health Team and discuss how they work to address some of these issues in our community and offer long term solutions for those in need.”

July 24, 2020, KGMI News Podcast: Bellingham Police Video Series

Episode Blurb: “The Bellingham Police Department has started a video series called the Perspective Project. In the videos, officers talk about issues that impact our local community. Topics have included race, police culture, defunding the police, and more. Officer Jon Knutsen joins KGMI’s Tessa McLeod to talk about why they started this video series and how it began.”


Transcript to the body of the podcast:

July 27, 2020 Bellingham Police Department Facebook page post

First line of Facebook post: “A single week at BPD (it’s a long post, busy week):”

July 29, 2020, KGMI Konnects: Sheriff Bill Elfo on funding for his department

Podcast Blurb: “Sheriff Bill Elfo joins us to counter what he says is misinformation being spread about funding for his department .”