Saying the police failed to investigate assaults against protesters who marched in downtown Bellingham two months earlier, a group of citizens turned in their own crime reports on Tuesday, April 26, to the Bellingham Police Department.
"We have brought light and justice to a place that rarely sees it," said Rosalinda Guillen, an activist and executive director of Community to Community Development, which advocates for farmworkers' rights.
Attorney Junga Subedar of the Whatcom Civil Rights Project turned in five crime-report forms the Project provides for citizens who believe they won't get a fair hearing through normal police channels. The reports, filled out by victims and witnesses, detail suspected assaults by a white man who got out of a vehicle blocked by demonstrators on Feb. 26. The man struck several protestors before leaving the scene along with a female companion who was driving the vehicle. (I was one of the marchers, and I witnessed the assaults.) The marchers were chanting slogans, holding signs, and occasionally stepping into busy downtown intersections to block traffic. They were protesting racial profiling and ongoing violence against people of color by police in the Puget Sound region.
Bellingham police "were dismissive and didn't take things seriously" when the suspected crimes were first brought to the department's attention, said Subedar, who called the standard means of reporting crimes to Bellingham police "oppressive" for the marchers and -- routinely -- for people of color in Bellingham.
Activists marked the occasion Tuesday by holding a banner outside the police station at 505 Grand Ave. that read, "End Detention / End Deportation." They said the police's dismissal of the marchers' initial compaints is part of a pattern of unfair treatment of people of color that included the Alfredo "Lelo" Juarez case from June 2015. Lelo, then 15, was pulled over by Bellingham police under suspicion of driving the wrong way down a one-way street. The teen wound up being sent to an immigrant detention center in Tacoma for 24 hours after police learned he was an undocumented immigrant.
Lelo filed a formal complaint against the police in September, accusing the department of violating its own policies -- essentially for exceeding reasonable procedures by putting Lelo in imminent threat of deportation. The department investigated its own actions and by December decided it had not violated its policy. The crux of the matter, police said, was that Lelo had lied about his age to officers.
"That tells you the bias that BPD has," said Maru Mora-Villalpando, who was at the demonstration on Tuesday and was one of the five marchers who submitted a crime report, along with Stephanie Sisson, Sawyer Joy, Omar Jordan and Liisa Wale.
"They chose not to investigate a white couple, but they chose to take a person of color to Border Patrol authorities when there was no reason for that," Mora-Villalpando said.
Inside the station Tuesday, Subedar handed the crime reports to Detective Caryn Queen and Detective Sgt. Claudia Murphy, who said they would "fully investigate" the incident.
Murphy said the initial investigation against the February assaults stalled because none of the victims came forward.
"We did reach out," Murphy said. "There was nothing heard."
Subedar said victims who are people of color often hesitate to report crimes to the police because of bad experiences with cops -- anything from getting no respect when giving statements to physical harm. That's why the Whatcom Civil Rights Project created the "Community Incident or Crime Report" turned in by the five victims and witnesses of the suspected Feb. 26 assaults. Subedar said she is not familiar with this type of citizen initiative in other places.
"If we can't trust (the police) to take crime reports, why couldn't we do it ourselves?" Subedar said. "It's a new solution, but it's a solution that makes sense."
The citizen initiative points toward a bigger goal of the Civil Rights Project -- a civilian oversight commission to watch over the Bellingham police.
The commission, said Guillen, "would build better relationships ... especially with people of color."