The lawless and destructive behavior exhibited during the Oct. 12 riot at Laurel Park surprised and shocked us and our community. How could something like this happen in Bellingham and what can we do to avert another similar incident? We welcome this opportunity to report back to the community on steps that have been taken in response.
First, we want to praise the high level of expertise and professionalism of law enforcement personnel involved with the riot, led by the Bellingham Police Department with the assistance of Western's Police Department, the Washington State Patrol and the Whatcom County Sheriff's Office. These agencies also have supported the follow-up investigation, which remains active and ongoing today.
The Bellingham Police Department continues to dedicate resources to riot investigation, and will pursue charges for criminal behaviors until the statute of limitations for specific offenses has passed. As of Nov. 19, 2013, 11 individuals have been arrested and charged with various criminal offenses. Another 13 people are being pursued for criminal offenses in connection with the riot; these people have been identified by name and, while they have not yet been located, it is the department's intention to ensure the proper court issues warrants for their arrest.
City officials estimate the cost of this incident at more than $20,000, including damages to public property and the cost of extra staff responding. While dollar figures are worth noting, they do not fully describe the true costs of this incident to individuals, to the City of Bellingham, to Western Washington University and to our entire community. Our officers were subjected to more than two hours of flying glass and other objects, and some received minor injuries. Neighbors in the area felt afraid in their homes, and some had property damaged. People driving by had vehicles damaged, including a Whatcom Transportation Authority bus. News of the riot traveled far and wide, sullying our otherwise excellent reputation as a safe community offering top-notch educational opportunities. Police continue to review photographs and images taken during the Oct. 12 incident in order to identify more people suspected of criminal acts, which may result in more arrests. Bellingham Police have received dozens of photographs, videos and crime tips to date, and they welcome any additional information and images members of the public wish to provide to assist in this investigation.
Western students involved in lawless and destructive behavior on Oct. 12 face both criminal charges and sanctions via Western's conduct process. Of the 11 individuals arrested to date, two are Western students. One student has been suspended from the university and another is being processed through the university's discipline process. This is a key way the university underscores its expectation that Western students be responsible, law-abiding citizens and make positive contributions to our community. And the vast majority do: Western students are involved in all aspects of Bellingham's social, political and economic life and provide hundreds of thousands of service hours annually to nonprofits, community organizations and schools.
FOLLOW UP ACTIONS
The causes of the riot were many. Drunkenness among college and high school students and non-students certainly was a contributing factor. Social media also played a part in the incident. The event fed upon itself via social media communications, pulling in more participants. Social media is an important tool in the follow-up investigation as well, as these days it is difficult to remain anonymous in a large crowd with so many smart phones and cameras present.
The City of Bellingham and Western Washington University have taken many steps in response to this unfortunate event, both in concert with each other and individually. In addition to our continued police investigation, here are some of the other actions underway so far:
Increased emphasis patrols initiated by local law enforcement immediately after the riot are continuing indefinitely.
Local law enforcement agencies are collaborating on increased civil disturbance training to ensure all agencies are well-prepared to effectively and safely manage incidents involving large numbers of people.
Representatives from the city and the university, including student government, have attended numerous community and neighborhood meetings since the riot to answer questions and gather ideas, and will continue to meet when requested.
Bellingham Police Chief Clifford Cook and Western Interim Police Chief Darin Rasmussen will speak to incoming freshmen and their parents at orientation, emphasizing the importance of students being respectful, law-abiding community members and the penalties for alcohol-related criminal and inappropriate behavior.
The city and university are exploring a collaborative process to identify and address problematic properties - such as "party-houses" - based on police calls, citizen complaints and student input. This initiative will coincide with the city's broader effort to address various landlord/tenant issues, a priority on the city's work plan for 2014.
Western's administration, student government, the Campus Community Coalition and other groups are reviewing existing community outreach and discussing new programs to foster closer relations between students and their neighbors, with a specific emphasis on reducing large, unruly parties, underage drinking and alcohol-fueled behaviors among students.
We have received hundreds of letters and other communications, thanking our law enforcement professionals for their patience, skill and courage in the face of a disturbing and volatile situation. Community leaders, neighborhood representatives and others have stepped up to offer their help preventing incidents like this one in the future. Thousands of Western students have spoken out, condemning the behavior displayed during the riot and standing up to say it does not represent them, and have sent over 200 cards with more than 1,000 signatures to the law enforcement agencies that responded to the incident. Those student voices are echoed by Western faculty, staff and alumni, all reaching out to denounce the violence near campus and reaffirm their support for Western's values.
The City of Bellingham and Western Washington University have enjoyed the mutual benefits of more than a century of close partnership and cooperation. The city provides a host of important services to the university. And Western, as a leading employer, provides a major economic benefit to the city. The city extols the advantages of having a major university. Western promotes the attractions of our wonderful city to prospective students, faculty and staff. These are just a few of the many ways our organizations, our missions and our communities are interdependent.
This ugly incident is entirely contrary to the city's and the university's values of civil discourse, nonviolence and making a positive difference in our community - values that are lived every day by the vast majority of Western students and residents city wide.
We pledge that we will take all possible steps to prevent a repeat of the destructive behavior of Oct. 12. Please let us know if you have more information or images to share from the riot, if you would like a city or university representative to speak to your neighborhood or community group, or if you have ideas for how we can prevent such incidents in the future.
ABOUT THE AUTHORS
Kelli Linville is mayor of the City of Bellingham. Bruce Shepard is president of Western Washington University.