This is offered in a spirit of understanding and not condemnation of the Bellingham Police Force nor of those who seek to change its methods of operation from within or without. Perhaps, an exploration might be a better term. Having been part of the BPD as a volunteer for six or seven years, I think we have a good police department, but problems exist. Unfortunately, police organizations, even good ones nationwide, are painted with a broad brush. The sins of other departments are visited upon all. I have lived in cities in Europe and Asia, as well as in the U.S., and have watched various police departments in action. Washington, DC was the worst. But we are not Washington, DC nor is this a police department in Los Angeles or New York City dealing with out of control, disaffected, or badly trained police officers… and their unions.
Quite frankly, police unions are often their own worst enemies. Rigid thinking, sclerotic leadership, conservative mindset, and a defensive posture work against change that would benefit not only the unions but those whom they serve, the public. I am an avid supporter of unions, however, police unions are quite justifiably coming under fire. They are much shunned by the labor movement precisely because the police, as I write about in the following paragraph, were called in, at their creation, to protect big industry (property) from the worker’s unions, the riffraff. Strikers were to be controlled, beaten, and forced back to work for meager wages. All this in the name of “property.” Moreover, if your union is working exclusively for the benefit of itself and not in solidarity with labor unions, that sets up immediate conflicts. After 13 years as an Army officer, I understand “unit cohesion” that unions create, but ties that bind are ties that blind.
It was wise of our police chief to take the ”Thin Blue Line” flag from the sign in front of the police station, although I understand other versions of it still appear inside the building. I would like to make some further observations regarding the U.S. flag adopted with the thin blue line. The term “thin blue line” was, it seems, originally the title of a 1911 poem by Nels Dickmann Anderson. The poem referred to the Army of the time that wore blue uniforms and formed in that blue line. My assumption is that the police officers who have appropriated this Thin Blue Line flag to represent their profession may not know the descriptive name’s history, but they would also be those who greatly respect and treasure the flag of the United States, the Stars and Stripes, as a symbol for our nation and every one of its citizens. I do, as a member of the group of veterans who takes care of the “Veterans Flag” in Fairhaven. Often ignored is 4 U.S. Code Section 8 (g): “The flag should never have placed upon it, nor on any part of it, nor attached to it any mark, insignia, letter, word, figure, design, picture, or drawing of any nature.” Yet the flag is used, and many times abused, by a panoply of organizations: political parties, hate groups, religious groups, sports entities, clothing manufacturers, and even the U.S. military. My pictorial article on the U.S. flag “Just Whose Flag Is It Anyway?” will bring home my point. All of these versions of the flag attempt to bring to the members of the group and those who observe the group that the proud organization is somehow allied with, and truly or singularly representative of, the U.S. as a whole. Therefore, to speak against that organization and its adopted version of the U.S. flag is somehow unpatriotic or un-American.
The very term “police” comes from the Latin, “politia” and a Greek equivalent πολιτεία (politeía). Both essentially mean state or government. Much later, during modern times, the word was to become the name of a civil force representing the state, supposedly to ensure adherence to laws, specifically those having to do with property as I mentioned above. Therein the seed was planted that would poison policing. The police enforced crimes against property such as theft, damage or merely occupying a space belonging to an “owner.” I invite you to look at the short video “The Fist of Modernity” which delves into the beginnings of policing and how that has informed and shaped our ideas of police forces today. The police were essentially created for the monied interests. The video was created by English video essayist Lewis Waller, who “argues that the modern police state is rooted in an almost willful misunderstanding of the root economic causes of criminality, and the will of the powerful to protect themselves.” Those with no property were essentially left out and told to “move along” (sitting and lying in Bellingham?): the poor, the natives, the mentally ill, the brown, the black, the immigrant, the Jew/Muslim/Catholic (pick the religion of the month), the uneducated, the “other.” By their presence, these people degraded and devalued property and were to be dealt with severely and to be “taught a lesson” in the name of property ownership. This conservative culture remains embedded in police forces and laws across the nation, albeit to a lesser degree here in Bellingham. But lesser is not non-existence.
The video’s written description, at the bottom of the page I linked to above, speaks to a “police state,” a term to which people react strongly. We are in one and it does not necessarily mean officers on the street. Surveillance by the state is 24/7 through our phones, our cars with GPS systems, our computers, our credit and ATM cards, police license plate scanners, parking meter apps, doorbell cameras, and the ubiquitous security and traffic cameras. Not all were developed to keep track of what each of us does, but they are all seized upon by police when there is a crime because that is what these devices do – surveille all of us, all the time. How does this system produce trust among the populace and with the police?
And of trust. Years ago I spoke to then Bellingham Police Chief Cliff Cook and Whatcom County Sheriff Bill Elfo about the purchase of military equipment for police work. Both defended the practice. However, there is a price to pay. When the police roll up in an armored Army vehicle, dressed as if to go to war, there is an immediate problem with the public. Police chiefs and sheriffs may speak about the goal of protecting their officers, but as I said in front of the mayor and the City Council several times, I do not expect, nor do our most disenfranchised of citizens expect, that the police appearance would be confused with an infantry platoon in Kandahar. Painting the word RESCUE on the side of the armored vehicle, as has been done in Bellingham, does not lessen the perceived threat to the public, it exacerbates it by the cognitive dissonance. As a mechanized infantry platoon leader in 1966, I had four similar armored personnel carriers with 50 cal. machine guns and I rode in the turret for many hours. These were formidable assault vehicles and they looked the part. These vehicles were created to intimidate. In 2013, after a student “riot” where the Bellingham PD’s armored vehicle was front and center, facing the crowd of students, I said to Cliff Cook, Kelli Linville, and Steve Swan (then the VP for University Relations at WWU) that this type of show of force had to be discussed publicly. Nothing was ever done except for an hour of discussion at the Mayor’s Neighborhood Advisory Commission three years later. No community discussion ever took place. The link to the city document on its website that promised community action has been removed. The document and its promise were tossed into Orwell’s memory hole.
Additionally, I will not leave out what has happened to our police officers as a result of all I have described above. Our police are traumatized because of what we ask them to do every day. Mission creep and equipment creep have invaded our police organizations. One need look no farther than the number (and weight – average 20 pounds) of the items police officers now carry on their belts. Woe betide the police officer who does not have that most recent gadget to respond to all imaginable situations. Day after day after day there is an endless series of calls for welfare checks and domestic disturbances. The police cannot keep up and the situation will worsen as mental health issues that follow from this pandemic increase exponentially. Mission creep, some of which can be attributed to lack of funding of government social support organizations. What is not funded elsewhere falls upon the police. No wonder police are always asking for more money and no wonder there is a move to “defund”. A friend wrote several years ago on the topic saying, ...”police work is inherently traumatizing. Whether they ever have cause to reach for their guns or not, police officers are constantly subject to threats of violence. It is part of the water in which they swim. Left untreated, the consequences of trauma can be disastrous. Lengthy exposure disrupts normal brain functioning. It undermines our ability to think clearly and carefully and regulate our emotions. And it makes us more suspicious, less trusting and even paranoid. It increases the likelihood that we will respond to stressful experiences aggressively.”
Accreditation of our PD is a double-edged sword at best. It is nice to be able to claim that you have been inspected and are following all the rules and recommendations. That we are among a relatively small number of police organizations (57 out of 300+) in the state to receive accreditation is commendable, but it also frightens me. What is happening out there with all the organizations that are not accredited or do not even seek accreditation? Moreover, what is this organization that accredits, the Washington Association of Sheriffs and Police Chiefs (WASPC)? Look at the executive board, all police chiefs or sheriffs and, with one exception, all white. Click on WASPC STAFF and no information appears. Who are these people? To whom do THEY answer? All of this speaks to trust, transparency and the lack thereof. No apparent civilian oversight. As Juvenal said, “Who watches the watchers?” Additionally, being accredited has nothing to do with the experience of the public in their daily dealings with police and therein lies the double-edged sword. Speak to your accreditation at your own risk for it may well backfire.
While Cliff Cook was still police chief, I learned from him that there was an “advisory body” to the police department whose existence has recently been made public. I knew nothing about it nor did my friends in Bellingham. I told him that I was surprised and suggested that its existence be made known and that the body be recognized openly as part of the city’s boards and commissions. He said he did not want that. This was a lost opportunity for the department to get out front. His decision was most unfortunate for now the existing advisory council will be very likely be mandated in a more robust form instead of proposed by the department itself. A lesson in losing an opportunity for agency and leadership on the part of an organization.
In the end it is about justice in the U.S. The people rightly see that justice is not applied, or unevenly applied, depending on one’s status. Hence arise groups such as Black Lives Matter, with good reason. There are 2.5 million people in prison in the U.S., many for crimes they did not commit or for offenses that do not merit the sentence given. Millions of dollars are stolen by the rich and if they are even investigated and then prosecuted, it is off to some federal day-camp prison.
The public sees.
I want our police to succeed and I respect our current department. We all must want them to succeed in order to transform the culture and develop understanding.
More to follow…