Whatcom County officials testified before a state Senate committee Thursday, speaking about the challenges law enforcement faced during a protest last month that blocked northbound Interstate 5 in Bellingham.
The Senate Law and Justice Committee spent nearly half of its two-hour work session hearing testimony on the demonstration, which involved roughly 100 protesters who denounced the Dakota Access Pipeline. Testimony included statements from Whatcom County Sheriff Bill Elfo; Dave McEachran, the county prosecutor; and state Sen. Doug Ericksen, R-Ferndale.
McEachran and Elfo, speaking via a video call, both said they fielded numerous calls from motorists inconvenienced by the protest. One woman, Elfo said, reportedly was not able to get to St. Joseph hospital, where her husband had been taken for a head injury.
“The existing laws prohibiting blocking roadways do not seem to contemplate the extreme danger, chaos and drain on law enforcement and other government resources that are inherent in blocking portions of the interstate highway system,” Elfo said.
Ericksen used the meeting to tout Senate Bill 5009, which would allow prosecutors to file special allegations against protesters who cause a disruption to an area’s economy. Ericksen introduced the bill in December.
“I fundamentally respect the right to protest,” Ericksen said, adding his bill would not hinder lawful demonstrations. “You do not have a constitutional right to infringe or harm another person’s constitutional rights.”
The protest outraged many motorists caught in the 4-mile backup, and the Washington State Patrol has attributed five crashes – including one rollover that left one person injured – to the blockade. Protesters cleared the scene about an hour after the arriving.
State patrol Chief John R. Batiste and Capt. Scott McCoy, who oversees the agency district that includes Whatcom County, also testified Thursday, shedding light on how the state patrol mounted its response. The agency, which was unable to make any arrests at the time, drew criticism from motorists caught in the back-up.
But Batiste called the demonstration a “total surprise,” and McCoy, giving the committee a detailed time line of its response, explained that the agency was simply shorthanded. It scrambled to get more help to the scene, where troopers were vastly outnumbered by protesters, he added.
“Often there’s people mixed in with those groups that aren’t sympathetic to law enforcement, so the decision was made, and I’d make it again, for two troopers against 150: We’re going to keep everybody safe until we get additional resources there,” McCoy said.
The state patrol has been working to identify people involved in the demonstration and have them charged, Sgt. Mark Francis, a state patrol spokesman, said by phone Thursday morning. The investigation is likely to continue for a few more weeks, he said.