Is Public Safety Facing a Crisis…or an Opportunity?

COVID-19 has crushed old work routines and changed the way most jobs are performed, some permanently. Factory jobs have been redesigned to limit close contact, doctors care for us through telemedicine, grocery clerks deliver to our cars, and teachers have innovated to teach online, etc. It’s a long, long list.

So, with all of this job redesign, why is there resistance to rethinking how public safety gets done? Over several decades, and unintentionally, we’ve outsourced non-criminal emergencies to police forces. From mental health crises to opioid overdoses to homeless families seeking shelter, the public has had no one else to call. We’ve dumped these issues on top of the work of solving and preventing crime, but we’ve provided minimal, if any, training to handle them. So, here’s the question: Might a better option be to engage skilled professionals specifically trained to treat addictions and mental health conditions and help the homeless find stability?

In conjunction with the pandemic, there is a growing realization amongst whites that too many communities have an undeniable double standard for some police actions based on race. And way too many encounters end in violence.

Can Whatcom County do better? Do we need to?

After months of consultation with diverse community members and advocates, as well as representatives from the Whatcom Deputy Sheriffs’ Guild and Bellingham Police, plus extensive local, national, and international research, the Whatcom Democrats adopted several recommendations to improve public safety and reduce the potential for violence to both police and the community. Recommendations include shifting some duties that now fall to police to professionals specifically trained in such areas as mental health, addiction, and homelessness. A series of changes to state and federal law are also proposed.

Brian Estes, chair of the Dems Issues and Advocacy committee explained, “We were pleased to learn about CAHOOTS, which operates in Eugene and Springfield, Oregon, and redirects roughly one in six 911 calls typically involving the homeless, addicted, intoxicated, or mentally ill to a separate team of mental health, social work and de-escalation specialists. The program saves the city of Eugene an estimated $8.5 million a year in public safety spending.” He continued, “We hope to see local leaders take the initiative on this.”

Treatment of Whatcom minority communities was a key priority. In Whatcom County, Black, American Indian, Alaska Native, and Hispanic residents are each arrested and jailed at over three times the rate of white residents. These findings prompted recommendations such as a local citizen oversight board, and at the state level, revised use of deadly force rules, and decriminalization of minor offenses such as vagrancy and drug use. Last month, an Oregon initiative decriminalized drug use.

There is also a recommendation for Whatcom County and its cities to increase focus on solving violent crimes. International research revealed that Washington state only files charges in 58% of homicides, England does so in 85%, and South Korea and Germany in 96%. This recommendation to re-focus is a direct result of that data, combined with the U.S. Department of Justice’s finding that, “The certainty of being caught is a vastly more powerful deterrent than the punishment.”

Andrew Reding, chair of the Whatcom Democrats said he “…look(s) forward to working with our elected officials and the greater Whatcom communities to move this forward.” He said, “So much has been and is happening in our communities this year. Between the pandemic, major economic disruption with housing and food insecurity, and example after example of excessive force used on the Black community, it has become essential to rethink how public safety should work for all.”

Full disclosure: I was a participant on this committee and learned a tremendous amount about police work, how it has evolved, and options for doing things differently. Deep research was done, lively discussions were had, and many voices were heard. Now, it’s up to our elected officials and the greater public to join the conversation. Please listen, please be open to alternatives, and please remember that we all want to be safe and healthy, including those who work for us in public safety roles. Who does what, how, and when are healthy question to ask and answer.

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About Jane Bright

Citizen Journalist • Member since Jan 14, 2020

Currently President of South Hill Neighborhood Association, which is 44% multifamily units, Jane is active in several Whatcom community groups. Following a career as a Human Resources executive for The Gillette [...]

Comments by Readers

Tom Dohman

Mar 03, 2021

I agree with the basic concept of specialized community support teams as described.  I happened to live in Eugene, OR in 1989 when Crisis Assistance Helping Out On The Streets (CAHOOTS) was created and have followed its progression intermittently over the last 31 years.  It is certainly a model worth considering, given its success and longevity that indicate broad acceptance by many stakeholders in Lane County.  There was no mention in this artiocle of the Law Enforcement Assisted Diversion (LEAD) pilot program that has very recently been launched in Bellingham.  I don’t know many details about the pilot but it sounds like a related sort of effort, albeit a program that is at least initially organized and mentored by BPD officers and staff.

I just now noticed that this article was originally posted on 12/20/2020 which was prior to the launch of LEAD, the BPD pilot program.  That may well explain a missing reference to Bellingham’s LEAD effort.

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