Reordering Justice Project Stakeholder Advisory Committee facility recommendations / Letter to Whatcom County Council and the SAC

March 6, 2023 Dena Jensen

On February 21, 2021 Whatcom County Council voted 7-0 to approve a resolution accepting the the Justice Project Needs Assessment Report. The report includes many recommendations developed during the Stakeholder Advisory Committee needs assessment process, including one to “build a new jail.” The County will now be moving forward with an implementation plan. The resolution states that part of the plan will be efforts to hear our input.

I sent the email below last night. There is contact information at the bottom of this post to use for sending your own.

Sent: Sunday, March 5, 2023, 04:45:48 PM PST

Subject: Reordering Justice Project Stakeholder Advisory Committee facility recommendations

Dear Whatcom County Council and Members of the Justice Project Stakeholders Advisory Committee:

Not long ago, I read a February 8, 2023 article in The Atlantic that a friend of mine had shared. The commentary pointed out that, since the death of George Floyd, there has been “no Great Reckoning in American policing” or “even, at scale, the ‘reimagining’ championed by the moderates.” The article noted that, in many cases, reactionary backlash has outstripped any changes that were initially brought forth. 

The article was published shortly after videos showed Memphis Police Department officers brutally beat Tyre Nichols, who was forever lost to his family in the aftermath of the officers’ deadly attack on him. The unjust death and the article came to my attention during the period that the Justice Project Stakeholder Advisory Committee was in the process of finalizing their report and recommendations for the Whatcom County Council. 

Since then, at your February 7, 2023 Committee of the Whole meeting, Jack Hovenier of the Stakeholder Advisory Committee, had remarked during the presentation of the Justice Project Needs Assessment Report at about 00:54:05:

“And I think, as interesting as it’s been to sit at the various tables through the years, when I hear from people in other communities, ‘well, we have a lot of work to do’ – Whatcom County’s doing really well. We actually are – we consistently hear from the experts, whether it’s Vera or the other people that come in, we’re doing a really good job. We’re asking the right questions.”

The reason I am writing today is to assert that the right questions aren’t enough. Even the implementation of such programs as LEAD and GRACE can fail our community members if priorities aren’t shifted in an impactful enough way that it outpaces the formidable power that is trying to keep things the same and maintain white supremacy here in Whatcom County and everywhere in our country. 

The City of Memphis, where Tyre Nichols was mortally assaulted by members of the elite Scorpion team – a now-disbanded strike team deployed in 2021 in the most volatile corners of that city, was where the prototype was developed of the specialized police officer approach, the Memphis Crisis Intervention Team (CIT), on which our GRACE program was based. And you can find information on sequential intercept mapping workshops on a Tennessee Department of Mental Health and Substance Abuse Services webpage.

Here in Whatcom County, the City of Bellingham had lost their police officer working with a behavioral health specialist a little over a year ago, and I am not sure the open position has yet been replaced, let alone any increase being achieved of such positions that had been budgeted for by the Mayor in 2021-2022. I know that much organizational work has been accomplished with the Whatcom Health Department launch of the new Response Systems Division, but we can also see the critical need for such services growing painfully quick before our eyes, while increased services coming to life are painfully slow. 

During Mr. Hovenier’s part of the 2/7/23 presentation to County Council Members, he had also remarked that, “In fact, even if we had the money, we don’t have the people in Whatcom County to provide the services that are necessary.”

The 2022/2023 winter season has marked the first time since 2019 that people who are unsheltered in our community have had a somewhat reliable secular severe weather shelter they’ve been able to access for more than about a week’s worth of days. They have gotten about a month’s worth this season, but there was a visible increase of people in need of it. And it barely came to fruition. On top of a long list of requirements, the Request for Proposal the County Health Department put out for severe weather shelter facility operators required such operators to be able to pay up front for their costs and be able to wait to be reimbursed at a later date. This RFP was issued during a period of increased economic instability in our community.  No one applied. 

In September of last year, when Mr. Hovenier took a tour of the Whatcom County Jail that was recorded and made public, he had made an important observation during his stop in the kitchen dishwashing area: ““So, Lieutenant Erickson, I know this is a dish tank, and so you’re going to have humidity, but still, I was talking to an inmate. He gets mold literally coming down. I mean look at this, this is literally coming down on him.”  

Tragically, inhumane actions and conditions that disproportionally and negatively impact BIPOC and unsheltered community members are normalized and accepted in Whatcom County. 

A failure to require and perform a regular cleaning routine that would keep mold from falling on jail residents, is a symbol of that normalization. 

Many of our community members experiencing homelessness who are not yet incarcerated are left out in extreme weather every year because far too few efforts are being taken to incentivize, increase, and value efforts that serve people in crisis and prevent crisis from revisiting them or moving on to new community members. Our government agencies failing to take such action and/or excusing the failure while focusing on long-term goals, is a symbol of accepting this immediate harm coming to our neighbors, not to mention putting them in jeopardy of increased crisis and becoming incarcerated in the future. 

I would agree that the efforts of the Stakeholder Advisory Committee in generating a needs assessment did significantly improve since the last time a new jail was being promoted, but the injustice in our community is aggressively competing with our slow progress and continues to appear to have the upper hand. The tendency of officials has been to say: we can’t keep up – can’t pay for it, can’t get enough people to do the work. 

And while a predominately white membership on the SAC and Incarceration Prevention and Reduction Taskforce has been acknowledged, this is the membership that has been driving the current Justice Project process. Moreover, however it is that our Whatcom County government has been conducting itself, Native American participation in this process – which will still likely result in disproportionately incarcerating members of their tribes and nations – did not occur.

Outreach to the community has improved but it has not yet been something that can be believably be promoted as “extensive.”

I know many officials feel that time is up and perfect can’t be the enemy of good. But we’re not at good yet. Take another year and get there first while concurrently helping your community address immediate crises and trauma people are experiencing. This will actually speed change up rather than slowing it down.

The last time we built a new Whatcom County Jail, it lost its services to a persisting priority of keeping more people locked up, while year after year, many life safety renovations have been purposely postponed. Officials promoting a new jail call our existing facility inhumane – some of them visiting it frequently – but mold is still allowed to openly accumulate in kitchen and shower areas and fall on people who are placed there. 

In Stakeholder Advisory Committee recommendations for needed facilities, the number one recommendation is to “build a new jail.” Regarding facilities to enable increased community mental health and substance use disorder treatment to prevent and reduce incarceration, the recommendation is to “explore development.” 

If there is ever to be a great reckoning of Whatcom County policing or even a reimagining, we need to see evidence of a priority shift that would spur actions like reversing the order and transforming the language of those two recommendations, i.e. “build a mental health and substance use disorder treatment facility” and “explore development of a more humane and just jail, not only for any new facility, but for our existing one.” 


Dena Jensen

Birch Bay, WA

This email was sent to the following addresses:

To: <>; Barry Buchanan <>; Kaylee Galloway <>; Todd Donovan <>; Carol Frazey <>; Kathy Kershner <>; Tyler Byrd <>; Ben Elenbaas <>; SAC <>

Cc: Satpal Sidhu <>; Health <>; <>; <>; <>; <>; G. CC. Immigration Board <>