April 22, 2022 Dena Jensen
On March 14, 2022, a presentation was given on RV parking code enforcement by Bellingham Police Department’s Public Information Officer, Lieutenant Claudia Murphy to Bellingham City Council’s Committee of the Whole. This presentation was given about three and a half months after City of Bellingham had initiated rigorous parking code enforcement following the lifting of the statewide ban on evictions.
After listening to the recording of that presentation, I submitted two public records requests to the Bellingham Police Department – each regarding a different set of dates – for Lt. Murphy’s body worn camera videos from any of her field work related to enforcing parking code for recreational vehicles.
Combined, my two requests were seeking recordings for dates ranging from November 15, 2021 through March 13, 2022. I swiftly received records responsive to each request. In total, there were close to 100 recordings that were supplied to me.
Review of that number of body cam recordings is ongoing, which I anticipate will take a number of weeks or months to complete. Since I want to begin sharing my review of them now, this blog post is going to start with a review of one of those recordings. This will be a multi-part series as additional recordings are reviewed that turn out to provide insights into gaps in critical services or barriers to services being provided.
As of April 22, 2022 I have reviewed about one tenth of the videos I have received from BPD. From that material and from listening to Lt. Murphy’s presentation to the Bellingham City Council Members last month on March 14, her approach and handling of parking code enforcement with people who are without shelter, so far, can be characterized as parental. In other words, while often coming off as prescriptive and authoritarian, her delivery is not without a sense of compassion and desire to be helpful.
In the initial couple months of the enforcement push, her communication style often mingles quizzing, lecture, occasional commiseration, and brief spurts of listing a couple names of potential resources. Frequently, it features an urgent manner of warning against potentially imminent, severe consequences. If people are not able to meet expectations, there is a tendency to emphasize the person’s transgressions that have led to the enforcement action officers are poised to carry out.
It remains to be seen if or how Lt. Murphy’s approach has evolved as months have gone on.
At the March 14 Committee of the Whole meeting, Lt. Murphy had told City Council Members that, “I just had HOT [the Opportunity Council’s Homeless Outreach Team] come out the other day and they did a phenomenal job helping and talking to people and coming at it from a different angle and getting people to understand that it wasn’t coming from a place of disrespect or hate or anything like that. We were having to do what we have to do.”
From the 10 body cam videos I have reviewed thus far, it seems clear that the presence of people trained in mental and behavioral health, and especially deescalation, would be extremely valuable at some of Lt. Murphy’s parking enforcement actions.
During one of the Lieutenant’s body cam recordings, she had a brief conversation with one unsheltered individual who owned an illegally parked car that bore a “Back the Badge” license plate. The individual shared that while they strongly supported law enforcement, it was a double-edged sword, because they had also been jumped by police while they were staying in another state.
Lt. Murphy told the person that she would be the first in line to “rip their badge off” if officers proved to not belong in the law enforcement profession, and added:
“We want people to be honest, honorable, and you know, do the right thing. That’s what we’re trying to do, is just do the right thing. For me, it’s respect given: respect given.
“For me, if you ratchet it up, then I’ll ratchet it up, but if you bring it down, I’ll bring it down, and then we can shake hands at the end of it and it’s all good.”
For this blog post series, I am featuring reviews of specific body cam recordings that reflect potential gaps or barriers in local government services for community members who do not have permanent or transitional housing, and/or are living in crisis.*
12-22-21 Body Cam recording of Lt. Claudia Murphy, 47 minutes and 33 seconds
Observations: This particular recording involves BPD Parking Code Enforcement action to tow a “hulk” vehicle – or one that is deemed inoperable and illegal to remain parked on City of Bellingham streets. During the action, Lt. Murphy abruptly awakens the potential owner of the car who is sleeping inside. Subsequently, the person is immediately quizzed and then called to get out of the car so it can be towed. As the interaction goes on for a few minutes, the person inside the car engages in self-harm, alludes to suicide, and becomes increasingly agitated.
This action occurs in the early afternoon on a Wednesday, during business hours for the Opportunity Council’s Homeless Outreach Team (HOT). Lt. Murphy never indicates in the video that she wants to reach out for any mental or behavioral health assistance. However, she offers the HOT team to the person once, as a source to help the person find a place to go. Meanwhile, Base Camp – presumably because it is the only shelter Lt. Murphy anticipates is available – is offered three times, and with each offer the distress of the person inside the vehicle escalates.
That night, after the enforcement action took place on the afternoon on December 22, 2021, Base Camp recorded that they had 218 people who stayed the night. In February of 2022, COB’s Economic Development Manager had stated in a meeting that Base Camp was full, which was during a week when the highest number of people recorded staying there was 211.
The timing of this enforcement action and the recommendation to go to Base Camp also occurred when the Whatcom County Health Department was offering news alerts seeking to mitigate a COVID-19 surge during the holiday season. They were recommending not gathering indoors in settings with large numbers of people and/or where it’s unknown whether people are vaccinated. Additionally, the Center for Disease Control’s COVID-19 guidance to allow people who are living unsheltered or in encampments to remain where they are, was then, and continues to be in place.
During the duration of this body worn camera recording of Lt. Murphy’s, she interacts with numerous civilians. In conflict with RCW 9.73.090(1)(c), only one person was advised that they were being audio/video recorded. Incidentally, the one person whom she tells they are being recorded is not the subject of a parking enforcement or any other type of enforcement action.
The following is a description and partial transcription of Lt. Murphy’s 12/22/21 body cam recording of the parking enforcement action that apparently occurred at around 1:00 p.m. that day. Nearly all of Lt. Murphy’s remarks from the video have been transcribed:
Lt. Murphy approaches an economy sized vehicle in the D Street area of Bellingham. There is some kind of fabric covering the front windshield of the car up to where the front door frames stop. The rear door on the driver’s side is visible and closed. The window is up. No other cars are parked near the vehicle.
There is an individual seated on a box or something low to the ground on the edge of the sidewalk about a car’s length from the front of the vehicle. They are saying something to an unknown person, but possibly to Lt. Murphy. It sounds like, “Hey, that my car. I buy it from them yesterday.” No one besides Lt. Murphy and this individual are in view at this point.
The camera stays on the covered portion of the car for a moment. Lt. Murphy knocks sharply 5 times on the car window which has some writing on it and a bright green “hulk vehicle” sticker. There is a piece of cardboard and a crushed beverage can in the gutter near the car. After a few seconds she lifts the rear door handle and opens the door.
The interior rear door and the backs of the front seats have some graffiti on them. There is a person lying on the rear seat in jeans and socks with a long sweatshirt covering part of them.
Lt. Murphy calls into the car: “Hey! Hi there! Wake up! You gotta wake up. Bellingham Police!” Another Bellingham Code Enforcement officer, Corey Schlaitzer is visible just beyond the rear of the car and he is on his phone.
Lt. Murphy continues speaking as the person slowly sits up and pushes their hair back: “Hi there. What’s your name, buddy?” The person gives their name. She calls the person by name and asks, “Do you remember me talking to you about two weeks ago?” They squint in her direction and answer, “Yeah.”
Lt. Murphy asks: “Do you remember this green sticker?” The person answers, “Yeah.”
Lt. Murphy: “What does the green sticker mean?”
Person in car: “Um, move car.” They rub their face.
Lt. Murphy: “Well it doesn’t just mean move the car, it means that this car is inoperable.” She holds her open palm out toward the vehicle and continues motioning with her hand as she speaks. “And we told you that if you didn’t get it fixed or moved that we were going to have to tow it. Right?”
Person in car: “Yeah.” They are still sitting on the back seat in jeans, socks, and sweatshirt, with their hands on their knee that is nearest the open door. They are looking in Lt. Murphy’s direction.
Lt. Murphy: “Yeah, so hop on out of the car, bud.”
Person in car: “F***.”
Lt. Murphy: “Hmm?”
The person in the car asks Lt. Murphy something that is not clearly distinguishable on the recording. They are possibly asking if Lt. Murphy can give them additional days to stay.
Lt. Murphy: “No we can’t, man.”
Person in car: “F***.”
Lt. Murphy: “We can – Base Camp has some openings, so you can go to Base Camp.”
Person in car: “F***, man.” They look away from Lt. Murphy and rub the back of their head.
Lt. Murphy: “I need you to grab your stuff that belongs to you.”
The person in the car voices distress, “AHHHH!” and places a hair tie on their hair down by their neck. Their face and upper body recede into the shadows of the car interior.
Lt. Murphy: “I know it’s tough, but we can call HOT for ya, and they can meet you somewhere that’s not right here and they can help you find someplace or you can go over to Base Camp.”
Person in car: “AHHH! F*** Base Camp, man!” They say something that is not clearly distinguishable and then, “F***! Real f***in’ loser.” You can hear Officer Schlaitzer in the street talking to someone on his phone.
The person in the car motions toward the street behind them where there are tarped materials and other vehicles in the distance.
Person in the car: “What about all this sh**, these people right here?”
Lt. Murphy: “We’re working on those, one by one.”
Person in the car: “Well, can’t you get them to move?” They are turned toward Lt. Murphy again and their face is visible. They are sitting in the same spot in the car.
Lt. Murphy: “Those need special tow trucks we have to order up, ‘kay. So, we’re working through, little by little. We’ve already towed cars and campers.” She points to the green hulk sticker on the window. “And these come due when we sticker them. So, this came due a couple of days ago, so now we can tow it today.”
Person in the car: “Can I get a f***in’ tow truck then?”
Lt. Murphy: “What’s that?”
Person in car: “Why can’t I get a f***in’ tow truck then? F***.”
Lt. Murphy: “You – you could get a tow – you – where are you gonna tow it? Do you have money to pay for a tow truck?”
Person in car: “No. Can’t.”
Lt. Murphy: “Huh?”
Person in car: “I can’t get money.”
Lt. Murphy: “Well, you’ve had 15 days! And you haven’t done it. You’ve had more than 15 days. So – ” she motions with her open hand toward the vehicle, “the rig doesn’t run. It can’t be parked legally on the street.”
Person in the car: “It does run.” They motion toward the front of the car.
Lt. Murphy: “Can you drive it away right now?”
The person in the car responds but wind is blowing into the microphone of Lt. Murphy’s body cam. The person seems to either be saying they can drive or can’t drive.
Lt. Murphy: “Can you drive it away right now?”
The person in the car continues to respond and point toward the front of the car. The wind is still blowing into the microphone.
Lt. Murphy steps away from the rear door and toward the front of the vehicle where it is apparent that the engine is exposed. She begins answering her own questions.
Lt. Murphy: “You can’t drive this thing. It’s not legal to drive. You got a bumper dragging. You can’t drive it away.” The person in the car responded.
Lt. Murphy: “What was that?”
Person in the car: “I gotta go park it somewhere. It runs good.”
Lt. Murphy first insists: “You can’t drive it away.” She then asks, “Can you drive it away right now?”
Person in the car: “Can try to get a tow truck and get it hitched.”
Lt. Murphy: “So it means you can’t jump in the drivers seat. And can you drive it away?”
Person in the car: “Just jump it.”
Lt. Murphy: “I don’t have a jump.”
Person in the car: “Can I get one?”
Lt. Murphy: “What’s that?”
Person in the car: “Can I get one?”
Lt. Murphy: “You’ve had 15 days to get one!”
The person in the car slaps themself across one side of their face.
Lt. Murphy: “Don’t do that to yourself! Come on.”
Person in the car: “AHHH! I’m gonna kill myself.”
Lt. Murphy: “‘Kay, we can get – we can get you to Base Camp.”
The person in the car yells loudly: “F*** Base Camp!! F***! F***, I hate that sh**!” They say something else that is hard to distinguish.
Lt. Murphy: “There’s gotta be a better option than sleeping in a car that has no windows in it, buddy.”
The person in the car calls Lt. Murphy an offensive name and slams the rear door shut.
Officer Schlaitzer is near the rear of the car and indicates he has called another police officer to come who appears to have arrived at that moment. Officer Schlaitzer calls out “Sorry sir, tow is on the way!”
Lt. Murphy: “Let’s not talk to him anymore and agitate him right now.”
The person inside the car can be heard a couple times voicing distress “AHHH!”
BPD Lieutenant Keith Johnson gets out of his vehicle and approaches Lt. Murphy. She shares with him that the person in the car hasn’t been told what will happen if he doesn’t get out of the car and that now they are “just mad in there.”
The two lieutenants discuss that the person in the car said they had bought the car from another person they know of, but don’t have papers for it. Lt. Murphy assures Lt. Johnson that the person in the car is not going to want to go to jail, and that officers can tell them that they are obstructing and they are going to go to jail. She says she had offered Base Camp and the person started yelling, but she says the other person sitting on the street near the car had just told the person to get out of the car and not go to jail.
Lt. Johnson asks the person on the sidewalk if they can talk the person out of the car, which they start calling out to try to do. Lt. Murphy says they do not want to take the person in the car to jail. The person on the sidewalk assures Lt. Murphy that the person in the car is going to come out.
Lt. Murphy says she is not going to engage further with the person in the car until the tow truck arrives. Lt. Johnson gets ready to leave the scene, but before he leaves he walks back to Lt. Murphy to tip her off that there seem to be people scoping things out in that area.
Lt. Murphy and Officer Schlaitzer stand together for awhile in an area across the street and about three or four car-lengths behind the car they are seeking to have towed. They watch the car and other things in the area.
A young adult on a bicycle had stopped in the street and was looking toward the side of the street where the car was, but behind it and down the hill to a parking area below street level. Lt. Murphy shares that Lt. Johnson had suggested that the person could be talking to other people who may come over to that area.
Many of the remarks made by Officer Schlaitzer are not clearly heard much of the time in the video. Wind blowing in the microphone obscures a lot of it and the volume of their remarks is low.
Lt. Murphy indicates that they will be waiting for the person in the car to come out of the car. She talks about how she feels that the conversation with people that is having the biggest impact on getting people to move their vehicles is letting them know that Code Enforcement can have the vehicles towed, and if the person is not the registered owner, they will not be able to get the vehicle back from the tow company.
The Lieutenant and Officer Schlaitzer discuss littering and dumping and codes that relate to them.
There is some action down by the car. Lt. Murphy puts on blue disposable gloves. Lt. Murphy walks toward it and the person from the sidewalk and the person from inside the car are both visible near the car.
It sounded like person from the sidewalk said, “He gonna pull it out there.”
Lt. Murphy as she approaches the rear of the car : “He’s gonna what?”
The person who had been inside the car is next the the driver’s door, which is open. He is interacting a little with the person from the sidewalk who is right in front of the car and closer to the driver’s side. The person from inside the car walks to the rear of the vehicle, acknowledging Lt. Murphy’s presence and then walks back toward the driver’s door.
Lt. Murphy: “What are you gonna do with it?” The man reaches in toward the steering wheel with their other hand on the driver’s door. “You can’t push it.”
Person who had been inside the car: “F*** it’s my sh**. Can push the car if I want.” They look back at Lt. Murphy.
Lt. Murphy: “Well, why are you gonna push it? It doesn’t help to push it.”
Person who had been inside the car: “‘Cause I want to f***in’ take care of my sh**.”
Lt. Murphy: “Where are you gonna take it?”
Person who had been inside the car: “Anywhere but here.”
Lt. Murphy: “You can’t have it on the City street anymore. It’s been hulked. ‘Kay? So pushing it is not – you can’t push it.”
The person who had been inside the car turned their head to face Lt. Murphy while she was talking and was responding while she was talking. What they said was hard to distinguish.
Lt. Murphy: “You’re going to crash it into another car.”
Person who had been inside the car: “Okay. Please.” They bent down to reach into the drivers side of the vehicle. They appear to be getting things together from the inside of the vehicle. They get into the driver’s seat and pull the driver’s door shut.
Lt. Murphy tells Officer Schlaitzer, who is present, that if the person was going to release the brake she would have had to grab them because the car would have crashed into a Cadillac that was a ways down the street from the front of the vehicle. She said, “I don’t think he understands that it doesn’t matter where it is on a City street.”
Lt. Murphy and Officer Schlaitzer talk about garbage in the parking area that is below street level from where they are standing behind the car they are seeking to tow. Lt. Murphy says she appreciates one of the people who had cleaned up a lot of the garbage and she will let them know the next time they see them. She and Officer Schlaitzer remark that the person was polite and friendly.
It starts raining and Lt. Murphy and Officer Schlaitzer walk back to the police truck that is labeled “Neighborhood Code Compliance.” They get inside the truck this time, leaving the passenger door open. They continue to discuss codes related to abandoned vehicles and littering, and seeking legal advice about the code before using it to take action in certain cases.
From the view of Lt. Murphy’s body cam the car they are seeking to tow is not visible, just gray sky, and tops of trees, power poles, and buildings. The two officers have a line of sight to the car though, which is evident from their remarks.
Lt. Murphy: “Ah, there he goes. He’s gettin’ out of the car. He doesn’t want to go to jail, which is good.” The windshield wipers on BPD truck are slowly operating. About 20 seconds go by. “He’s gonna – he just took the battery off of it. Just like that. I’m gonna – what he doesn’t realize, is when the tow truck comes here, I’m gonna go down and grab the battery that he just took and take it out of the woods and put it – and toss it away.
“Just like, I mean, that’s the part that – this is the exact part that the advocates don’t see and don’t want people to believe, like – that guy was going to help us get him out of the car, which I appreciate, but the minute that guy turned his back on that car, and this guy knows it’s going to get towed, he goes and he gets the battery off of it.”
Officer Schlaitzer hypothesizes that it could be why the one person from the sidewalk wanted the person from inside the car out of it, so they could start stripping the vehicle.
The two officers discuss the tow company that is coming and note that the 4 tires of the vehicle are all good.
Lt. Murphy: “Well, actually now that he’s gone, I’m gonna go -” She gets our of the BPD truck and walks toward the car they are seeking to tow. She removes a reflective windshield cover that is on the ground under the passenger side door and a puffy jacket that has been hanging over the front passenger door window space where the glass is gone. She places these in the front passenger seat along with some bubble wrap that she pulls off the window frame. There are some empty aluminum cans and other material on the floor on the passenger side. She, and Officer Schlaitzer – who is on the other side of the car – remove the material that has been covering the front windshield. That glass remains in place. Only the glass in the front driver’s and passenger doors are gone.
The person from the sidewalk is back sitting on the box-like item and begins saying something to the officers.
Lt. Murphy: “He what?
The person on the sidewalk says something about themself and the other person from inside the car and clothes. But they seem to reassure Lt. Murphy that they do not want the clothes that officers have been putting in the vehicle. Lt. Murphy had put another coat inside while they were speaking.
Lt. Murphy walks past the front of the vehicle toward the person on the sidewalk. She points toward the area behind where the person is seated.
Lt. Murphy: “We gotta get that battery.”
Person on the sidewalk: “No, I’m buy it.”
Lt. Murphy: “You bought the battery?”
Person on the sidewalk: “Yeah.”
Lt. Murphy: “Where’d you buy it?”
Person on the sidewalk: “I buy it from him.” They point up the street beyond the car.
Lt. Murphy: “It’s a brand new battery?”
Person on the sidewalk: “No. Too old.”
Lt. Murphy: “Where’d you buy it?”
Person on the sidewalk: “I buy it from him.” They point up the street again.
Lt. Murphy: “‘Kay. What are you gonna do with it?”
Person on the sidewalk: “Man, I bout call my dad. I give it to my dad. I give my dad, see.”
Lt. Murphy: “‘Kay. Don’t leave it here. If it’s here later, I’m gonna throw it away.” She goes back toward the car placing a piece of plexiglass inside and walks around to the other side of the car.
Officer Schlaitzer is on that driver’s side of the car placing some material inside. He mentions going to grab some bags.
Lt. Murphy: “I just wanted to make sure it was as clean as possible for them to come and grab it, so they can just hook up to it and -” She walks back to the BPD truck which is parked next to the tarped structure with an animal crate and a few plastic containers next to it. She takes off her blue gloves, turns them inside out, and tosses the ball of them on the dash. She takes out her cell phone which displays the time as 13:27.
Officer Schlaitzer is now in the truck, as well.
Lt. Murphy: “I’m not necessarily sure I believe him, but I wasn’t ready to get in a fight with him right there about the battery.”
Lt. Murphy: “It’s just sad that’s the way that people feel like they hafta, you know – just that there state is such that that is – that that seems to be an option.”
Officer Schlaitzer: “It looks like they’re gonna be leavin’ down there. They’re movin’ on, I mean.”
Lt. Murphy: “And unfortunately, it doesn’t look like – “
Officer Schlaitzer: “Is that the guy that was cycling around us?”
They decide they don’t think so. The body cam still does not have a view of what is happening in the street.
Lt. Murphy: “Yeah, he – well, he’s been doing this a long time – doing the hazmat clean up – the guy who owns the company. So, he’s the one who responds to our crime scenes and does – or he did. And so he is terribly, terribly organized.
Officer Schlaitzer says he hears a lady yelling, then notes that the tow truck has arrived. Lt. Murphy opens her door, exits the vehicle and walks toward the car they are seeking to tow. The tow truck is not yet in sight.
Lt. Murphy turns to look back toward the BPD truck and the tow truck is pulling up just behind it. It is a large truck with a flatbed. As it drives past Lt. Murphy, two people are visible next to an RV on the other side of the street from the BPD truck.
One of the people calls to Lt. Murphy: “We’re almost ready. We just need, like one more hour.”
Lt. Murphy: “For this?” She motions toward the RV.
Person near the RV: “Huh?”
Lt. Murphy: “For that?”
Person near the RV: “Yes”
Lt. Murphy: “Alright.” The two people walk around to the door of the RV next to the sidewalk. Lt. Murphy stays turned toward them for a bit and then a person walking a path up the hill from the parking area down below street level says something to her. She tells them to just be careful of the tow truck.
Officer Schlaitzer: “Pete’s comin’ up.” A City of Bellingham truck pulls up near the sidewalk where Lt. Murphy, past her up to right behind the RV where the two people are.
Another person comes up the path near Lt. Murphy. They ask: “Towin’ sh**?”
Lt. Murphy: “Abandoned vehicles – or hulk vehicles, yeah.”
Person from the path: “Christmas spirit early this year, eh?”
Lt. Murphy turns around as the person from the path crosses the street. Lt. Johnson approaches from the direction of the BPD and COB trucks.
Lt. Johnson: “Is he out?”
Lt. Murphy: “He’s right there, yeah.” She points to a figure visible beyond the COB truck and RV. “He got out on his own.”
Lt. Johnson asks if their friend had talked them out.
Lt. Murphy: “No, he eventually just got out on his own.” Lt. Johnson heads down the hill to the parking area below street level.
Lt. Murphy watches the street for awhile. Lt. Johnson comes back up the hill.
The person who had been on the path earlier and remarked about Christmas spirit approaches Lt. Murphy again. They seem to ask something about what vehicles are being addressed by parking enforcement.
Lt. Murphy: “So, it’s a very intricate process. So, we have to – some of the vehicles we can tag as abandoned because they operate and move, so we get those moving because that’s the object of it. If you’re living in your motor home, you can live in your motor home, but you can only be here for 72 hours and you have to move. So we’re starting that process.” She motions towards where the car they are seeking to tow is.
“This is what you call a junk vehicle. This is no longer operable.” The person acknowledges this. “And so we have to tow those and those are easier to tow and get off the streets. When you have a junk vehicle that’s a motor home – “
Person from the path: “Why don’t you arrest the people that are selling drugs in it, and wait 72 hours and take that too? Seems pretty smart to me, you know?”
Lt. Murphy: “Well, we – how do you expect us to – like right now, how do you expect me to arrest somebody for selling drugs?”
Person from the path: “Put a frickin’ undercover officer and ya frickin’ spy on ’em for a night. It wouldn’t be that much resource.”
Lt. Murphy: “You – you have not realized probably that the drug laws in the state of Washington have changed and so -“
Person from the path: “I know, no, I am very aware of that actually.”
Lt. Murphy: “People who are in possession of drugs can’t be arrested at this point.”
Person from the path: “Why not selling drugs?”
Lt. Murphy: “We have to have them sell.”
Person from the path: “To an undercover?”
Lt. Murphy: “We don’t have any undercovers in Bellingham anymore, so we can’t place an undercover. So how do you – “
Person from the path: “This isn’t a solution though.”
Lt. Murphy: “What’s that?”
Person from the path: “This isn’t a solution. Another car is going to come there in a week and it’s going to be the same thing. You’re wasting tax-payer dollars just doing the same thing.”
Lt. Murphy: “We’re not. We’re getting a junk vehicle off the street that’s never going to get back out on the street. We don’t have a choice – “
Person from the path: “There’s going to be a replacement vehicle here in a week, I guarantee it.”
Lt. Murphy: “Okay, and then we have to deal with that. What I’m telling you is one of the things that we’re doing is -“
Person from the path: “So why don’t you leave that here?”
Lt. Murphy: “Because we don’t want junk vehicles on our street.”
Person from the path: “Who’s we?”
Lt. Murphy: “The City doesn’t want junk vehicles on the street. It’s illegal, so we’re towing them and moving them.”
Person from the path: “So is drug dealing. I find drug dealing much more offensive than parking on the street.”
Lt. Murphy: “And we are working on that. I just towed a vehicle the other day that was full of drug people – that was full of drug dealers and we towed it and got it crushed.”
Person from the path: “Cool.”
Lt. Murphy: “So, it’s one at a time. ‘Kay? So we’re doin’ the best that we can. And we have to do things in a timeline. So abandoned vehicles, 72 hours. Hulk vehicles, 15 days. We have to wait that length of time. We also have to wait until a tow truck that can tow these things can come and help us tow them, right?”
Person from the path: “I understand that.”
Lt. Murphy: “We investigate as much as we can with the amount of people that we have.”
While Lt. Murphy is still talking, the person from the path says something about the neighborhood and says that’s what they are getting at.
Person from the path: “This is skid row in Bellingham.”
Lt. Murphy: “We are working on it. Have you been to Cornwall lately? We towed -”
Person from the path: “I haven’t been to Cornwall. Is that bad?”
Lt. Murphy: “Well, on the 30th November we tagged 62 vehicles abandoned between Cornwall and Civic Field Complex, and about 80% of them got moving. So the vehicles that got moving were able to move. So now we’re left with the vehicles that won’t move or can’t move. And now we’re dealing with them, one by one.”
The person from the path asks something about permanent housing coming in and what the process is.
Lt. Murphy: “That is – the police department doesn’t deal with permanent housing.”
Person from the path: “That sucks.”
Lt. Murphy: “So what we can offer them is – all of the shelter availability. We can offer them to our – to all of the direct service providers. And we have so many direct service providers, I can’t even count on my hand. That’s what we can turn them over to.”
Person from the path: “Okay that’s good but what’s the permanent -“
Lt. Murphy: “You have to talk to the people who do permanent housing. That is not in the purview of the police department.”
Person from the path: “Why? That seems weird.”
Lt. Murphy: “Permanent housing?”
Person from the path: “Permanent housing which is temporary housing -“
Lt. Murphy: “We do – we – We don’t do anything with housing, ‘kay. That is not our purview. Our purview is not housing.”
Person from the path: “I think it’s weird, man.”
Lt. Murphy turns away from he person from the path and toward the vehicle they are seeking to tow. The person from the path starts to walk across the street from where Lt. Murphy and the car are. Lt. Murphy turns back to a line of sight with the person from the path and calls across the street to them as they continue to walk further away.
Lt. Murphy: “So permanent housing is City Hall and all the people who do housing. That is not the police department. I wish I could answer that for you.” A car drives down the road between Lt. Murphy and the person from the path. “I’m not trying to be a smart aleck, but housing is not what we do.”
The person from the path begins to walk a little closer in the direction of Lt. Murphy, but they are still across the street.
Person from the path: “I get that you’re not trying to be smart like that, but you know, it’s like, people look up to you as a symbol of a government representative -” Lt. Murphy has moved across the street toward the person.
Lt. Murphy: “But we also have to stay in our lane, right? Housing is not what we do. We don’t get involved in how to house people.”
Person from the path: “People might want to live out there, that’s true. That’s their freedom. I understand that.”
Lt. Murphy: “But, yeah, right, there are people that wanna – and I’m glad you understand that, because we do. We understand that there are people who want to live like this.”
Person from the path: “I understand that. I understand that.”
Lt. Murphy: “But permanent housing is something that we – that is not – that is not our purview.”
Person from the path: “It’s so f***ed up as it is. It’s so f***ed up.”
Lt. Murphy: “Believe me, this is a complex – this is such a complex situation. By the time you deal with the houselessness that people are facing, the reasons why they’re houseless, the mental health aspect of it, the drug addiction aspect of it, it is such a complex scenario, that each one of us that are doing, we can only do what our piece is. And our piece is to get junk vehicles off the street and then get the motor homes moving.
“Housing is something that the – sheltering is even different than housing, right? It’s a completely different – there’s a group working on sheltering. And then permanent housing is something that another group has to deal with. That’s not the police department’s – that’s not what we do.” The person from the path is nodding their head and giving short affirmative responses.
Lt. Murphy: “Yeah. And we’re tryin’. Because you, and your neighborhood, you’re just one neighbor that I’ve talked to in the last several weeks who is feeling the same thing. And the stress that you all feel about seeing this and having -“
Person from the path: “It’s sad.”
Lt. Murphy: “It’s sad. The idea is -“
Person from the path: “I don’t mean to come across as angry. I’m just sad. I’m sad.”
Lt. Murphy: “No, no, you’re not. And so am I.”
Person from the path: “I hate this sh**.”
Lt. Murphy and the person from the path are now facing the car which is being prepared to be placed on the inclined flatbed of the tow truck. Officer Schlaitzer is visible closer to the vehicle and is faced in this direction as well.
Lt. Murphy: “I had to just tell a guy to get outta the car because we have to tow the junk vehicle off the street. It is sad. It’s horrible, right?” The person from the path is responding while Lt. Murphy is talking but it’s hard to distinguish some of what they are saying.
Person from the path: “That sucks.”
Lt. Murphy: “And I don’t wanna – I don’t wanna have to do that but I have to balance our governmental – the governmental interest in what residents like you want and get your neighborhoods back. And the only way we can get the neighborhoods back is talking to one person at a time and dealing with one rig at a time.
“I mean, when this tow truck came by, we have never been able to get in contact with anybody in that trailer right there, until the tow truck came down the street just now and she came – they came running out to say, well we’re moving this in an hour – we’re moving in an hour.
“So it’s the tow trucks that are starting to get people to understand that we are serious and that people have to start complying. So she’s – this is the most activity that I’ve seen there. She’s got two tires out that she’s replacing.”
Person from the path: “No I can see that -“
Lt. Murphy: “So, I’m hoping that she tows it out.”
Person from the path: “Yeah. But I see – I live right up there on the hill.”
Lt. Murphy: “Yeah. So you look at this all the time.”
Person from the path: “I see all the drug activity there.” They point in the opposite direction down the street from where the vehicle being towed is. “It’s ridiculous. It’s so sad because the people who come here are – they don’t got anything, man. And they don’t got anyone behind them. They don’t got a job. They don’t got food. They don’t got shelter. They haven’t got anything. They just stick to their drugs. It’s so sad.
Lt. Murphy: “And their big wall – the big wall is, is that everything that they have and everything that they get goes into smoking fentanyl. That’s – and so until you can break that fentanyl – they have no desire. They will forego food, they will forego everything in order to smoke. And so that’s the bigger issue we’re dealing with, right?” The person from the path has been nodding their head and making affirmative remarks.
Person from the path: “It is the most nasty motherf***in’ substance. My friend died in July because of it – or June.
Lt. Murphy: “Fentanyl overdose? I’m so sorry”
Person from the path: “He was my best friend from f***’in high school and also [hard to distinguish here] I was living’ in a big-assed house and sh**. I f***in’ made the most of my unemployment checks -“
Lt. Murphy: “My camera’s on, just so you know.”
Person from the path: “No. That’s cool. I’m not going to say anything. And I f***in’- and like, I really turned my life around and really did – and I saw him on the street. I f***in’ saw him and I invite him in – and it was three weeks later he died. It’ just so – just a shell of himself.” Wind is blowing into the microphone. “Just a slave to a drug.”
Lt. Murphy: “It is – it truly destroys people from the inside out. It really does.”
The tow truck driver is making some progress on getting the vehicle to be towed up onto the lowered end of the flatbed.
Lt. Murphy: “And the thing that I realize is, is that, that young man that I just talked to – I’m not talking to the young man that – who he is. I’m talking to the drug addict. If he’s clean, sober, and fed, and healthy, he’s probably a very, very, very nice, kind, kind kid. Because I talked to him before and when I talked to him before he was totally nice.
“So it has nothing to do – for me, I’ve been doing this a long, long, long, long time – it has nothing to do, other than we have to do what we have to do and sometimes we have to get loud. Sometimes we have to move quickly. But it all depends, it all comes down to when we’re done moving fast and we’re done moving hard, then it’s all about the respect. If I can talk to you as a human being, no matter what it is that’s going on with you, then we get so much more done.
“And so my goal is – I have talked to all of these people and I’ve told them what we’re gonna do, what we’re trying to do, how we can help them, and how best to avoid happening what is the worst case scenario. So I figure if I front-load them with all of that information, then when we come, which has happened three times already -“
Person from the path: “It’s not even a surprise.”
Lt. Murphy: “When we come, they go, ‘Okay, Murphy. Yep, you’re right.’ I said, ‘Remember when we talked 15 days ago and I told you what would happen?’ I said, ‘Here we are today.’ I said, ‘I’m gonna let you get all of the stuff that you want out of there.’ And they go, ‘Yeah, I get it. It’s not a big deal, I get it.'”
Person from the path: “But when people are on those types of drugs, they – like you said, they have no recollection of any past, like ambition in life. They don’t care that they eat tomorrow or the next day, or the next day. They just f***in’ wanna smoke that sh**, man, and -“
Lt. Murphy: “And you know what we need?”
Person from the path: “I honestly think you should take these people and just like involuntarily arrest them for a week to get them sober, and then talk to them.
Lt. Murphy: “We wish we could. But we can’t”
Person from the path: “I f***in’ wish we could!”
Lt. Murphy: “We couldn’t – we can’t do it. What we truly need, to be very honest with you, and I will tell this to anybody, it doesn’t matter. I’ve talked to my chief about it. I’ll talk to City Council about it.
What the nation and the state has to do is, the cities and the counties can’t individually do this because it costs too much money – ” The car is now fully up onto the tilted flatbed and starts being lifted up level onto the back of the tow truck.
“But the nation has to realize that while we don’t need to go back to the mental health hospitals that we had in the ’70s, what we need is, we need dual diagnosis and treatment facilities, and we need enough of them, that when people like me and him – ” she turns toward Officer Schlaitzer, “come across somebody who is clearly incapable of taking care of themselves, and clearly in a hot mess, and we have something to arrest them for, they have the choice of, you can plead guilty and you can go to jail, or you can go to this facility that allows you to get – you walk in the door and it’s a medical detox. You get treated for your mental health and your drug addiction at the same time, clinically and medically. And then when they get clean and sober, then we make them start doing small chores. You help clean the table. You make your bed. Then we work them into counseling. Then we work them into a trade.”
Person from the path: “Small baby steps.”
Lt. Murphy: “Exactly.”
Person from the path: “They don’t understand this sh** because look how they live. They live in trailers and just totally trash -” Wind is blowing into the microphone.
Lt. Murphy: “And one of the saddest stories – it’s a cool story, but it’s really sad and it – I tell this over and over and over again, especially to people who are in my life circle who don’t understand what this is -“
Person from the path: “That’s a big problem too.”
Lt. Murphy: “We had a – and this is a story from Base Camp. Base Camp said they had a fella that been a long-term resident there and he had been working his way through the steps and he finally got on a list for housing and got housing and he got his own apartment. And he was super excited.” Wind obscures a few words. “He goes to his house. He’s super excited. That night he is back at Base Camp and he’s sleepin’ at Base Camp. And it literally took somebody from Base Camp – now this is a concerted effort by multiple staff members – it took them six months to get him to stay the night by himself in his apartment because he couldn’t do it. He couldn’t do it. So they taught him to fill his refrigerator, and taught him –
Person from the path: “People don’t feel like they deserve that.”
Lt. Murphy: “Don’t deserve it and don’t know what to do with it. They found him sleeping on a mat in his kitchen because he didn’t know – he didn’t feel comfortable sleeping in the bedroom in the bed. And it was too quiet in there. So he was so conditioned to all of the noises that that was soothing to him. So when he was in that apartment by himself, he was so alone.”
Person from the path: “I can see that.”
Lt. Murphy: “So when people say that this thing has a solution X, it is unbelievable how complex the solution is.”
The person from the path motions widely with their arm, but their words are obscured by the wind.
Lt. Murphy: “One thing that I’ve been telling people – which I’ve been told is a good analogy – so everyone knows, because a lot of my friends and the people I know are educators – so people know what the autism spectrum is, right? You have people at the very high end functioning that- they have autism with certain quirks, right?
Person from the path: “My best friend has Aspergers.
Lt. Murphy: “Right? So they can function on their own.”
Person from the path: “They’re just socially awkward. You know, that’s all it really is.”
Lt. Murphy: “Right. So minimal, minimal, minimal intervention is needed to make his life hum the way it should.”
Person from the path: “Right.”
Lt. Murphy: “And then all the way at the other end of the autism spectrum are those people who are never going to be able to live on their own and they’re going to need 24/7 care and intervention because they’re non-communicative and they cannot do anything for themselves.
“So the way I look at homelessness is, is you can stretch that out on the autism spectrum. We have the very high functioning people who are homeless, like that gentleman down there.” It is not apparent in the video who she is referring to.
Person from the path: “Autism’s one of the biggest undiagnosed – isn’t it?”
Lt. Murphy: “But homelessness fits on that spectrum. We have people who, like him, he doesn’t need anything because he has everything self-contained, and is good to go, and he keeps his mess clean. He’s -“
Person from the path: “Yeah. He has a solar roof.” They laugh. “That’s kind of technical savvy.”
Lt. Murphy: “He’s a – he wants to live – he chooses to live like that, right? And there’s nothing he needs from us, except to abide by the rules. But then there’s people like him -” She points toward the tow truck which is still parked in front of them down the street and has the car up on the back of the truck, “who are at the other end of the spectrum, who, right now, need every intervention in the world. And right now, our community and our state and our country doesn’t have the sufficient funds to do that. And until we get those dual-diagnosis treatment and – diagnosis and treatment facilities, we have people like this out on the street. And until we force people into treatment, they are going to stay out here because that fentanyl devil has ahold of them. And it won’t let go.”
Person from the path: “That stuff is awful”
Lt. Murphy: “It is.”
Person from the path: “I don’t – I wish we’d just wipe that chemical out of existence.”
Lt. Murphy: “I know. And that’s why I wish people could – and I mean it’s coming into this country like a water faucet, the way that it’s being brought in.” The tow truck starts pulling away with the car.
“Well I appreciate you comin’. And I appreciate you talkin’.”
Person from the path: “I appreciate you too.”
Lt. Murphy: “Yeah.”
Person from the path: “It opened my eyes a little bit. I saw it from your side and I don’t want to be over judgmental and like, you know, try to – ” the next few words are hard to distinguish.
Lt. Murphy: “Yeah, me either.”
Person from the path: “I hate doin’ that. But I came out here a little rash, but f***, man -“
Lt. Murphy: “That’s alright.”
Person from the path: “I think we’re on the same side.”
Lt. Murphy: “Yeah we are. Absolutely. Take care.”
The person from the path walks off. Lt. Murphy turns away from the receding tow truck and toward the BPD truck and Officer Schlaitzer and Lt. Johnson who are standing across the street from each other. Lt. Johnson crosses the street toward Lt. Murphy, Officer Schlaitzer, and the BPD truck.
Lt. Johnson: “Another friend.”
Lt. Murphy: “Got him talked right down.” She laughs. She is walking closer to where some other RVs are ahead of Lt. Johnson’s truck. “I’m going to have a conversation with her ’cause I don’t think I’ve ever talked to her. Thanks, Keith. Where are you guys headin’ next?
Lt. Johnson: “Those guys are gonna grab lunch and we’re going to go over to Racine.”
Lt. Murphy: “Racine? Okay.” She approaches two people in the street next to a motor home. One is on the ground near a tire. The other is standing next to them and is turned toward Lt. Murphy. “Hi there.”
Person standing: “Hi.”
Lt. Murphy: “Hi there.”
Person sitting: “Hello.
Lt. Murphy: “What’s your name?” The person sitting gives their name. Lt. Murphy calls them by name to confirm they heard correctly.
Person sitting: “Yes.”
Lt. Murphy: “Did I talk to you before?”
Person sitting: “No.”
Lt. Murphy: “Okay, you have a green sticker on this rig, right?”
Person sitting: “I just got the tire and, literally today, I was able to get the tire and the jack and everything and I just need a little bit of time and I will be out of here today, I promise. Swear.”
Lt. Murphy: “Kay, this thing runs?”
Person sitting: “The van runs, yeah. And this is towable. Yes.”
Lt. Murphy: “So, it’s been marked as a hulk because, –
Person sitting: “I understand.”
Lt. Murphy: “there’s so much damage to it, so here’s -“
Person sitting: “It’s because of fire.”
Lt. Murphy: “So listen, just for a second, just listen to me, okay. The green hulk sticker does not abate – meaning it doesn’t go away – when you move it to a different location in the City.”
Person sitting: “I know. I’m moving it on to private property”
Lt. Murphy: “With permission of the private property owner.”
Person sitting: “Yes. Well, storage unit.”
Lt. Murphy: “Okay. Alright. As long as it’s not on a city street you’re good. Any time that you’re on a City street, this thing’s gonna get towed and crushed and that’s the -“
Person sitting: “I know.”
Lt. Murphy: “The reason I wanna talk to you is ’cause I want to explain to you that it’s not just move it.”
Person sitting: “I know.”
Lt. Murphy: “This will get taken and crushed immediately.”
Person sitting: “Yes.”
Lt. Murphy: “So you’re telling me, and I have your word that you will move by today.”
Person sitting: “I swear on everything.”
Lt. Murphy calls the person sitting by their first name and asks their last name.
Lt. Murphy: “And are you the owner of this one, this one, and the big rig, or just this -“
The person sitting points to the RV they are seated by and the vehicle in front of that one.
Person sitting: “These two.”
Lt. Murphy: “So you live in these two.”
Person sitting: “Yep.”
Lt. Murphy asks the name of the person standing and they answer. Lt. Murphy asks their last name and they answer.
Person standing: “I don’t live here.”
Lt. Murphy: “No, but you’re just helpin’ her?”
The person standing nods.
Lt. Murphy: “Alright. Appreciate that.”
Person standing: “Yeah we just need a -” the last word is hard to distinguish.
Lt. Murphy: “Okay. Thank you.”
Lt. Murphy has turned away from the two people near the RV and walks toward Lt. Johnson and Officer Schlaitzer who are at the back end of the RV and in front of the City vehicle.
Officer Schlaitzer says something that is hard to distinguish.
Lt. Murphy: “Off camera” The recording ended.
*Footnote to this ongoing public records review:
Back in July of 2019, David Doll, who was then the police chief of the Bellingham Police Department, appeared in a BTV show that is posted on YouTube, entitled “Bellingham Voices-507-Encampment Cleanup.” During the discussion of Bellingham Police Department’s perspectives regarding what they view as the clean-up of tent encampments where people without shelter resided in the City of Bellingham, Chief Doll stated:
“So outreach and enforcement is an important philosophy for us to have, ensuring that we see that human element and the criticism that we get is: ‘Aren’t you just displacing it? Aren’t you just moving them to someplace else?’ And the answer is: absolutely we are – to a place where there’s no impact. That’s the key here.”
From such a statement it would be easy for people to believe that Bellingham Police Department assisted residents of the encampments with moving from their currently impactful encampment space to another living space that had no impact. However, this is not what occurs, and is virtually not possible.
People have an impact wherever they go, and it is not BPD practice relocate people from encampments to new spaces where they can live without impact. From past review of BPD body cam recordings, officers will occasionally provide what they consider a courtesy ride to individuals who are able to seek entrance at the only year-round 24/7 emergency drop-in shelter in Bellingham. Sometimes officers will also offer referrals – with an amount of detail varying from very minimal to specific – as to where a person can try to get access to potentially needed services.
However, none of this should be translated to mean that people always find that they can actually remain sheltered at the drop-in shelter, or that any of the services offered in our community are a match for their needs.
Therefore, statements that have been made over the course of the last year by officials such as Lt. Murphy and Bellingham City Council President Hannah Stone, that imply that encampments sweeps/cleanups or parking enforcement actions are synonymous with people without shelter receiving the services they need are also misleading in the way former Chief Doll’s assertion was on Bellingham Voices in 2019.