Notes: Bellingham City Council Committee of the Whole continues to broach civilian oversight of law enforcement / Noisy Waters Northwest

June 22, 2021 Dena Jensen

At Bellingham City Council’s June 21, 2021 Committee of the Whole meeting, Council Members discussed the content of a memo prepared by the City’s Legislative Policy Analyst Mark Gardner. The memo provided them with information samples of boards and commissions that provide oversight of law enforcement in other small and medium-sized cities in the United States. The memo also noted, “A few larger cities are included for comparative purposes.”

This is the first time the Council discussion of civilian oversight has gotten to a somewhat less vague point where Council Members made statements that help us get a slightly better idea of what each of them are beginning to prioritize related to this issue.

An initial item of concern is that as the discussion wore on, the voicing of the need for police involvement in the process of creating a board to oversee them outstripped initial mentions of the desire for civilian involvement in the creation of an oversight board composed of civilians. No sensitivity was offered in the discussion by Council Members regarding how marginalized community members may feel sitting “at the table” with people working for an agency that has a supreme level of power over their lives. And while there was talk of “improving policing,” whatever that is intended to mean, there was no talk by Council Members of improving community safety and well-being.

Council discussion begins at approximately 01:00:50 in the YouTube video recording of the meeting. Click this link to access the presentation by Mark Gardner. Below are notes closely based on the remarks of Council Members during that discussion.

City Council Member Dan Hammill:
He remarked that he feels Council Members are getting to a place of trying to figure out what their goals are. He listened last time and has been doing a lot of research on this topic. Personally he feels like the review model works very well when it’s blended a little bit with the auditing board model.  As he reads it, the review would be a civilian, or citizen, or resident composed board to review use of force and other items that are police-related. 

He said the audit part would be: what recommendations could be made to change things? There’s a thing called GARE, Government Alliance for Racial Equity and it is used in the Incarceration Prevention and Reduction Task Force. That could be something that a board like this could recommend – that there could be a GARE overlay on everything being discussed when policy improvements are being talked about. 

The other piece he said he thinks is important locally: the Racial Equity Commission was being talked about just before he mentioned it. There’s a development team that the Mayor and Council Member Huthman, County Council Member Buchanan, and Satpal Sidhu, the County Executive, sit on it. But there’s also a workgroup that’s coming, that should be empaneled by the end of this month and he would be really curious to get their take on this work. There’s also the Immigration Advisory Board and he’d be very curious to get their take on this work. Specifically people from marginalized communities, he wants them to have every opportunity to have every voice present in discussing how we do this – not necessarily in every decision later, but certainly in guiding policy on this. 

City Council Member Lisa Anderson:
She said she was glad to get to have some comparative models [provided by Mark Gardner] to Bellingham’s population base. She said part of it is: What are our goals? What are we hoping to achieve?  She thinks maybe Council Members can sit down in a workshop or separate session to say these are our goals – that’s going to help them identify what’s going to be the best process. She agrees with the review and audit.

She said some of the research she has done is regarding the pros and cons. One of the things she gets concerned about is taking away what the Police Chief and the internal investigation is really supposed to be doing. She said, sometimes when you have a board that does a lot of that, the Police Chief or those assigned may not actually be focused on that duty, and that’s the internal culture that it’s important to be improving.

She liked the Corvalis example [presented by Mr. Gardner] which was where there was the internal investigation of complaints, and if somebody was not satisfied, they kind of file an appeal on certain types of complaints and then those were something the board could really review – so anything outside of – maybe it’s the use of force, maybe it’s the police-involved shooting – whatever the criteria is that is identified. She also likes the second tier of having a place to file an appeal, should you file a complaint.

She said ultimately the goal for her would be just to improve practices, so there’s a little bit of that audit component where we can find trends where there might be internal bias, or where practices could be improved. So she leans toward the example of review with a little bit of the audit. But also she’d really like for goals to be identified for establishing this. And ultimately budget and staffing will have to be determined for support; that’s going to have to come along with this. 

Sometimes she thinks of those on the Council, they have two support people for the seven of them. One is a support assistant and then they have Mark [Gardner] who does research and is a liaison for that. Looking at some of these programs, they have their own legal counsel, and City Council doesn’t even have that. She said this was not to say they shouldn’t be providing staffing but she wants to make sure they are creating something that is going to be very useful to reach those goals, but that is also fiscally realistic for the work that’s going to be accomplished. Whether it’s a full time staff member or utilizing current staff members, whether it’s increasing staffing to City Council in a shared position, where someone is with the board and also increasing support for the City Council – that’s a whole other conversation for later, because there are times she could really use other staffing to do some work and they don’t have that for Council. That’s a broader conversation for the future.

City Council Member Michael Lilliquist:  

He was glad for the specific examples that Mark Gardner provided at the meeting. He said he thinks the highest goals are pretty clear and not particularly new. They are looking for transparency, trust-building, improved outcomes, better policing  or policing the right way at the right time. He hopes this is a way to further getting there. He goes back to what NACOLE uses, there’s no one best practice; people have to figure out what best fits their community. 

He agrees with what Council Members Hammill and Anderson said. He is interested in the review model to start with. At minimum there needs to be a review component and then the audit component can come next or near – in the latter half of the year – and it can be built on year after year. That audit component should be stepping back and looking at policing – kind of how it works. That’s not to say individual disciplinary acts or see if there’s a trend or pattern of some problem – but step back and look at what we can do better. 

He pointed out that in terms of what is not wanted is an “Office” with paid staff and professionals and a risk of bureaucracy and an enormous expense. He said it’s just another agency alongside a police department and he doesn’t think that is what is wanted. It is something that exists in some bigger communities. But he feels more input from residents is wanted – residents who are brought up to speed on police practices in Bellingham, so they know what they are seeing. When they give a report to the Council and the community about what they are finding, then it will be known they have taken a look and know what they are talking about.

He said at first, and at a minimum he wants someone who can look over the shoulder of the existing complaint process and existing disciplinary outcomes. But the policy – he would like some help. For example, the use of force policy or programs to address hate crimes or use of predictive policing technology, or the demographics of arrests or traffic stops – those are all policy issues. He thinks almost every one of those have come up before the City Council in the past few years. It would be nice if there was a civilian board that also looked at those policies and issues along with the Council and which could provide feedback to the Council and to the community. 

He wanted to echo what Council Member Hammill said about shopping this civilian oversight concept around. He said they are sort of shopping it around right now and he is hoping that the public will give the Council feedback on what they are hearing – whether they do think they should form some sort of civilian oversight body with review functions and maybe audit functions – but reach out to the Racial Equity Commission and to the Council’s own Immigration Advisory Board to hear what they are thinking. He thinks it is time to be shopping the ideas around so they can start talking about what specific form of review, with a little audit, they might be able to institute. 

Then they could talk about potential budget impacts. If they do a review model, they will need to staff that. They won’t need much, but they will need something, and he wants to make sure that they do have staff to support those meetings and any kinds of reports they come up with.

City Council Member Gene Knutson: 

He said there are a lot of ideas being floated around, but he wanted to ask a simple question: When are they going to involve the police guild and the police department in all this? There are nine bargaining units in Bellingham and he wanted to say what he said awhile back: There is a Public Works Advisory Board. There is a Parks and Recreation Advisory Board. He said we don’t hear the word oversight with those. He understands why. Last year was a horrible year for everybody when what happened to Mr. Floyd in Minnesota, but again he thinks a lot of the reaction – but he will give Council Member Lilliquist his due – he’s been talking about this long before this happened – but he knows it’s intensified now.

But with people that are in the police department now, he thinks they need to be involved with this. They might have ideas too. Before they go down the line with this, he said, let’s present it to them. Let’s have them come forward and talk to us also, rather than them maybe feeling that they are being singled out. Because if an oversight board is done, it’s going to be totally different than an advisory board. There are a lot of advisory boards but when the rubber hits the road, it’s the City Council that makes the decisions. He thinks at some point they need to involve the police guild and the police department.

City Council Member Pinky Vargas:

She thanked for Mark Gardener putting the helpful information together. She said she is currently leaning toward the Corvalis example. She thinks this should be done incrementally, and starting with the review is a great place to start. Then there is a base line and it can be seen what issues there are and where things are at and whether or not they have to intensify etc. But she thinks that is a really great place to start. 

She also agrees with Council Member Hammill’s comment on what are our priorities? She said if you look at all the different cities around what priorities they have – she thinks that’s an important part for the Council to drill down on and see what actually we want to get out of this and make sure it is worthwhile for our community and that it absolutely involves our police department. 

City Council Member Hollie Huthman:

She said it sounded like the Council Members were pretty similar as to their goals for this, which is great. Starting with just a review board would be fine. She thinks that’s a wonderful way to get to some accountability and trust with the community. But she also thinks that that long term solution, that long term policy and data analysis is so important if we want long term change. She would hope that they have some kind of audit component somewhere at some point. It doesn’t necessarily have to be in conjunction with an oversight board but that that element is happening somewhere.

She said it sounds like the Council would like to invite a lot more input into this process, as well, and she is curious what the next steps are and how they go about that. Who or what entities spearheads the leadership to start the process of creating this board. Do they as a Council do that? Do they as representatives start to do that? She is curious about thoughts about how do they start taking steps to make it happen.

Mayor Seth Fleetwood:

He asks if he can propose, in light of the range of opinions and concerns and ideas that have been expressed that day, that the administration and Mr. Gardner work together to incorporate all those thoughts into some process recommendations, perhaps including some timelines and bring them back to the Council for review. 

City Council Member Anderson: 

She said she just wants to thank Gene because he advanced some of the information she was thinking. She is never for something that pits more of an adversarial or punitive tone to anything, and she doesn’t think that is at all their goal. She said their goal is to create avenues [my recording was inaudible here] not only as a city and services but our law enforcement department and she thinks they have done a lot of good work.

And she thinks of some of the situations that have come up in the past where that information would never have come to light if there wasn’t internal reporting that they thought they had an issue. And she wants to make sure that type of integrity is always held in place. And she also agrees that it is needed to work with their law enforcement guild and also police leadership to get their ideas of how this type of community or citizen board could be advanced to help them be informed and make improvements because for the folks that she has talked to that are in this profession, that’s their goal. She thinks that’s really important to hear and it also will, when you have people who work in the field and they have inside information, they’re going to also be part of that illuminating of where the need is and how they’re going to benefit.

She doesn’t think, contrary to some public belief, that they’re going to be roadblocks to this process; they should be partners. She can’t imagine anyone on Council or seated in leadership who would not believe that. 

So, as they start formulating and moving forward – she thanks Council Member Huthman for asking about next steps and who takes the lead on this – but when that does get formed, whoever on Council is participating, she does hope that there is going to be, along with community stakeholders, to also keep in mind that the guild and law enforcement leadership is part of that stakeholder.

She said it’s much easier and much better product and service to come forward when everyone works together and there’s buy-in from everyone and a belief from everyone that this is going to make us better. And so, she said, there is a need to work with law enforcement through this process, and she thinks the sooner that is started, the better it will be, and they will get truly good buy-in because they know that they’re being valued and their voice matters in this process. And she said, “we haven’t really involved them yet.” She doesn’t want to go too much further and not start involving them in some of the conversations.

Council Member Hammill:

He agrees and that when he was listing of the names of stakeholders it was only external. He was making the assumption that police would be involved in this. He says they have to be. He points out the changing dynamic landscape: Bill 1310 completely changes everything on certain types of behavioral health calls by July 25th, not a year from now, next month. This is a big deal. And there are the other 12 laws that came down from Olympia: the alternate response team; 988 coming online for behavioral health next year. 

He says the expertise have to be in the room so that appropriate decisions are made. And the folks that are working on this are going to have to have the education. It’s not just what was here last year or five years ago; everything is changing now. He wants to make sure that everyone is at the table and sharing the information together. 

Council Member Lilliquist: 

He does believe that our police need to be involved in this conversation. He says he has spoken to the former Chief and the current Chief but that doesn’t substitute for creating the kind of understanding and buy-in that he thinks is needed. He was talking to someone about these sorts of oversights and according to the experience of people in the fields, and the make-or-break for these programs isn’t the model you follow. It isn’t even the budget you give it, it’s whether or not there is police buy-in – whether or not they see it as a program that’s there to support better policing or if it’s something they need to treat hostilely. 

He’s hoping that a situation can be created where our best allies for better policing are the police themselves. He’s hoping that civilian oversight is one way that better policing can be achieved. He hopes that “every single one of us” is onboard with that.

He says policing may change or be different, but no matter what happens it should be something we can be proud of – something that’s just and he thinks that’s what people swear to do when they put on the uniform. So he says that police involvement and support is definitely needed. 

City Council President Hannah Stone: 

She checked with Mr. Gardner to make sure he had what he needed in regard to pursuing next steps and also asked if there were any final thoughts from Council.

Legislative Policy Analyst Mark Gardner:

He says if it’s okay with the Council they will move forward with the Mayor’s proposal to work with his staff to develop a timeline and a roll out will be involved. He said Council would then have an ability to weigh in on that and decide if additional public outreach is needed or outreach to communities or whatever. He said that seemed reasonable to him. 

Council President Stone then moved on to other agenda items.