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Downtown Bellingham is getting a reputation for this, but is it deserved?

Walking downtown with a Bellingham police officer

Jeremiah Smith, Bellingham police officer, talks about his job as the foot patrol officer in downtown Bellingham.
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Jeremiah Smith, Bellingham police officer, talks about his job as the foot patrol officer in downtown Bellingham.

Downtown business owners are telling city leaders they need help. They’re tired of people sleeping in the doorways of their buildings, lighting fires in their alcoves, and having to clean up after those who leave behind stolen bicycles, trash, feces and drug paraphernalia such as used needles.

That, and a rise in antisocial behavior and unseemly loitering, is making some people who visit and work in downtown Bellingham feel unsafe, they said.

“We are in a state of emergency downtown and we require your attention,” Peter Frazier, business manager for Clearstory Investments, told the City Council in April.

Frazier said he’s responsible for the comfort and safety of nearly 100 elderly residents in the Leopold and its 30 employees, as well as roughly 60 office workers in the Bellingham National Bank Building.

Frazier isn’t alone in his concerns.

Bellingham residents reported feeling less safe when walking alone downtown during the day and night than previously, according to a recent survey of residents’ views about issues facing the community.

It varied by age and gender – younger people felt safer than others, while women tended not to.

Still, Mayor Kelli Linville said, at least half the people in the survey, reported feeling extremely or somewhat safe.

Survey results were released in March.

“It’s not acceptable for any crime, I want to make that clear,” Linville said. “I’m not saying ‘Oh, that’s good enough.’ But I am saying that, at least for myself, I do feel safe when I’m downtown, and maybe it’s just familiarity.”

The mayor’s office in City Hall is located downtown.

So, what’s going on? What do Bellingham Police Department statistics reveal about safety downtown? Are concerns about the area being unsafe a matter of perception, or reality?

Disquiet over safety

The March 12 deadly shooting in downtown raised a great deal of concern about safety downtown.

Bellingham Police Officer Jeremiah Leland shot and killed Manuel Gonzalez, 28, outside Everyday Music, 115 E. Magnolia St., that Sunday afternoon.

The shooting was preceded by a confrontation in which Gonzalez stabbed a man in the neck on East Holly Street before being pursued by witnesses to nearby Railroad Avenue, where he fought with them before police arrived. He was shot when he charged at the officer while holding a knife.

Bellingham Police released this video from Officer Jeremiah Leland's body camera during the confrontation and shooting of Manuel Gonzalez, who they say stabbed a man in the neck in downtown Bellingham on Sunday, March 12.

Whatcom County Prosecutor Dave McEachran ruled the shooting was justified. While acknowledging the event was traumatic, police said it was singular.

“It stands out because we don’t have those types of incidents frequently in our downtown,” Bellingham Police Chief Cliff Cook said.

BPD statistics showed a nearly 2.5 percent increase in overall incidents from 2013 and 2016 in downtown – going from 3,688 to 3,778 responses that were both criminal and non-criminal in nature.

For 2016 alone, 53 percent of the incidents police responded to in the downtown were non-criminal in nature.

Criminal incidents would be arrestable offenses such as assaults, robbery and rape. Non-criminal could include responding to people with mental problems, someone violating the sitting and lying ordinance, or someone who was drunk.

Cook said the statistics show downtown “is as safe as it’s been in the past” and also that downtown is no more dangerous, and may be less dangerous, than other parts of the city.

“What makes people uncomfortable and I might even say to some extent fearful is what they observe downtown that they don’t understand,” Cook said, adding, as an example, that could be someone pacing on the sidewalk and having conversations with himself.

The impression of downtown safety can’t be ignored though, city leaders said.

“While it is true that the perception is worse than the reality, perception has a reality of its own that we need to take seriously,” City Council member Michael Lilliquist said.

What they see

Merchants and others who work downtown had a hosts of concerns that included people loitering, urinating in public, drinking, using drugs and selling whippits.

They would show up for work and encounter people sleeping in doorways, who may not move along when asked.

“Business owners weren’t saying, ‘We don’t want them here,’” Cook said. “Business owners were saying, ‘It’s the reaction I get. It’s almost like now they claim that’s their doorway. It’s my business. I can’t even get in.’”

Lighthouse Mission Ministries’ decision to open a temporary, 24/7 low-barrier shelter in October helped by taking up to 80 people off the streets, according to police and some merchants.

Downtown Walk 2
The Lighthouse Mission’s Drop-In Center on West Holly Street in Bellingham. Philip A. Dwyer pdwyer@bhamherald.com

Feelings of safety varied among business owners, in part because the people whose behavior caused problems moved around.

“You do see an ebb and flow for sure,” said Spencer Willows, co-owner of Casa Que Pasa, The Shakedown and The Racket.

And, they said, the homeless weren’t necessarily the ones causing the problems.

“I know a lot of the aggressive loitering, drug dealing and drug use, littering, all of these issues I think are very commonly the effect of a community that is, in fact, not homeless,” Willows said.

Business owners who were interviewed – all of them supported the city’s efforts to open a low-barrier shelter for up to 200 homeless men and women – said their focus was on illegal behavior that got in the way of being able to do business.

“Being homeless in itself is not an offense. But it’s behavior. I don’t know if it’s homeless people or not homeless people,” said Ken Reinschmidt, owner of Saratoga Commercial Real Estate.

Saratoga has nine properties downtown, totaling about 300,000 square feet and about 30 tenants.

Core of the problem

Cook said most people law enforcement deal with downtown aren’t homeless.

That became clear in 2014, when police looked at the people they had to repeatedly respond to in the downtown for problems such as drinking alcohol in public, disorderly conduct, urinating in public and some mental health issues that were of concern.

Police called them the “core 54” because they were responsible for most of the service calls to law enforcement. Of the total, 13 – or nearly 28 percent – were truly homeless, police said.

They also had three or more tickets in a period that covered Jan. 1, 2014, to Oct. 31, 2014 that they didn’t respond to. Combined, they had 314 infractions for that time period, and one man had 29 tickets.

Most of their behavior was non-criminal in nature – such as drinking alcohol in public, which is an infraction and not an arrestable offense – but business owners were frustrated.

“It’s not to say that something still doesn’t need to be done,” Cook said. “The sense I get from the downtown business owners – and I know the mayor has had many discussions with them – is they’re frustrated because they feel, from what they hear from their customers, that some of these behaviors are causing people to be so uncomfortable they won’t come downtown.”

And while it’s been a few years, the problems found then are reflective of the issues found today in downtown, police said.

Possible solutions

What can be done?

First, business owners said, help those who want to be helped. Open a bigger shelter for the homeless, get them into housing, find them jobs, help people struggling with mental health and addiction.

They’d like to see more bicycle or foot patrols in downtown Bellingham, as well.

Downtown Walk 1
Bellingham Police Officer Jeremiah Smith, left, tells Kathleen Stouffer, 53, that she can’t drink alcohol in public on Wednesday, June 21, in Bellingham. Smith stopped to talk to Stouffer on East Holly Street during his walking patrol of downtown. He also asked Stouffer, who was homeless, if she was getting services to help her. Evan Abell eabell@bhamherald.com

“Just the presence of an authority figure changes the dynamics of an area so much,” said Django Bohren, owner of The Comics Place.

Filling up empty storefronts so there’s vibrancy with people coming downtown and so there’s someone to keep an eye on the properties also can deter behavior that makes downtown feel unsafe, they said.

Linville said prevention was important to her, and the city spends up to $450,000 a year toward such efforts, including for the Homeless Outreach Team, community paramedic and intensive case management.

An upcoming project called Whatcom GRACE (for Ground-Level Response and Coordinated Engagement) also could help, by reaching out to those being called “familiar faces” – people who tend to fall through the cracks over and over, and who have a number of needs such as housing, behavioral health and substance abuse. They’re also the ones who come into contact with a number of organizations.

The countywide effort, which will bring a number of agencies and social service providers together, is being coordinated by Whatcom County government, and that’s important to Linville.

“This is not a Bellingham problem. It happens to focus in Bellingham but these are not all Bellingham people,” the mayor said.

Still, police and some business owners said tools are needed for those who flout the law and who don’t want services.

In particular, they would like the City Council to add three hours to an ordinance that forbids people to sit and lie on downtown sidewalks, so that it can be in effect from 7 a.m. to midnight, and they want the boundary widened so it covers more of what’s seen as downtown.

Police said it was a matter of safety to not have people blocking sidewalks where there are pedestrians, but the ACLU and homeless advocates said such laws target people who are visibly poor and homeless, and could be unconstitutional.

Lilliquist said the proposed change to the sitting and lying ordinance came before the council a while back but wasn’t acted upon.

“For some people, including myself, restricting and limiting people from sitting down is not a well-aimed tool. For one thing, sitting down is sometimes a perfectly fine and normal thing to do. In addition, our police tell me it is difficult to enforce and easy to avoid,” he said.

“For example, people can move just a little distance, such as where the alleyway or a driveway cuts through, and then they are technically not in violation because it is not a ‘sidewalk’ under the definition,” Lilliquist added. “It seems like a lot of work, and some hostility, to get at something that is not the heart of the problem.”

The other requested measure was a failure to respond ordinance, which would allow police to arrest those who have three to five citations for infractions that they haven’t addressed in some way, either by paying the tickets or setting a court date.

It would address issues like the one caused by the man who racked up 29 tickets, most of them for drinking alcohol in public. Because his violations were infractions, meaning he couldn’t be arrested for them, writing tickets for the man – and others like him – became an exercise in pointlessness.

Lilliquist said there was perhaps more support for the failure to respond ordinance.

Such a measure “would be, and should be, carefully aimed at repeat offenders who commit obviously harmful or disruptive acts such as public intoxication or urination in public,” he said. “Right now, the only penalty is the threat of a fine, which some people happily ignore knowing that collection is not a realistic possibility. This rule change would make it so that, if someone ignores multiple citations, they could be charged with a misdemeanor crime, something which has some teeth.”

He said the city’s goals were compliance and good behavior.

“We don’t want to put people in jail for minor crimes, quite the opposite, but neither do we want them to avoid accountability,” Lilliquist said. “A failure to respond ordinance could allow us to tackle a big problem created by a small number of people. It’s the ability to really focus on one problem that has my interest.”

To Cook, the chance to get such people before a judge means they could be ordered into services that correct their behavior.

“It’s an attempt to push them in the right direction,” the police chief said. “Many of them are happy living that lifestyle they’re in and don’t want the help. That’s that group that the business owners recognize. They’re people that no matter what we do are not going to accept or ask for assistance, but they’re still creating issues for us.”

Downtown Walk 3
Holly Street and Railroad Avenue in downtown Bellingham. Evan Abell eabell@bhamherald.com

But enacting such a measure also means having space in the jail, which isn’t available now.

“I want to be clear. We are not going to arrest our way out of this problem. However, the police do need more tools to do the job we expect them to do,” Frazier said. “We have a jail issue, and lack of housing and mental health services, and many other integrated issues. I believe, however, that we can solve these issues as a community, and that to do so, it is important that our downtown area must be allowed to thrive. It cannot thrive when there is a public health crisis going on in our midst.”

An indicator of the downtown’s health, according to Reinschmidt, was being able to renew tenants leases. He hadn’t seen an exodus of tenants but he was hearing, more than ever, tenants questioning whether they wanted to keep their businesses downtown.

“Everyone loves downtown. No one’s given up on it,” Reinschmidt said. “But at the same time, people are getting tired of all the work it takes to keep things up.”

Kie Relyea: 360-715-2234, @kierelyea

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