Part of the reason tragic events, such as what happened Saturday in the Puget neighborhood when two people were assaulted and a third stabbed to death, cut so deep is that we still think of Bellingham as a small community — a place where seemingly random crimes such as this don’t happen.
After news of Saturday’s crimes broke, how many of us said, “I was just there 15 minutes before that happened,” or “My friend and I walk her dog on that trail all the time?” In small a way, many of us felt like we were attacked along with the three victims.
The City of Subdued Excitement’s population is steadily chugging toward six figures, but we’re still the type of town that enjoys getting to know our neighbors. We may not always agree with the guy or girl next door — this is Bellingham, after all — but we’d like to think that we’re there for them when they need us most.
The Bellingham Police Department is hoping to reinforce this small-town sense of community and, in the process, get a few extra pairs of eyes and ears on the street with its Bellingham Neighbors Together volunteer program, which is beginning its third training academy this month.
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“We see a lot of benefits to this program,” Sgt. Keith Johnson of the Neighborhood Anti-crime Team and Outreach told The Bellingham Herald this week. “First, we think this is a good opportunity to get to know the police department. They get to meet officers and see how the department works. It’s a good way to give back to the community, and it does help the police department.
“Its effect is exponential, because our volunteers are out there talking to people and helping them learn what to think about and how to help themselves become less likely to be victims of crime.”
Bellingham Neighbors Together, which was patterned after a successful volunteer program in Vancouver, Washington, was started early in 2017 as a way to partner interested citizens with the police department. Volunteers do not confront crime, rather they observe and report to the police department and serve as a presence in neighborhoods, helping the professionals keep our streets safe.
“We’re committed to a visible public presence,” civilian volunteer coordinator Scott Hendrickson told The Herald last week. “We hope that presence reduces crime, promotes safe neighborhoods and educates residents. If we can reduce crime through our presence, then it’s a success.”
Though the program is similar to the Bellingham Citizen Patrol (formerly known as the Retired Senior Volunteer Program) and even shares the same training program, Johnson said they serve different purposes. The Bellingham Citizen Patrol focuses “exclusively on abandoned vehicles, disabled parking violations and vacation house checks.” Citizen patrol volunteers also can have abandoned vehicles towed and can write parking tickets, unlike volunteers with Bellingham Neighbors Together, who have no enforcement responsibilities.
Through its first two training academies, which meet once a week for six weeks, 33 Bellingham Neighbors Together volunteers have been trained, Johnson said, and of those, nearly 80 percent are still involved. Volunteers are asked to commit to at least four hours a month, though Johnson said the “core” members of the group often work four or five times that total.
In August and September, the program generated 130 patrol hours, Hendrickson said, which he estimated was worth more than $30 per hour to the department and served an invaluable role in the community. Costs to run the program, he said, were minimal, limited to putting on the training academy and uniforms.
In the field, volunteers are paired together, Hendrickson said, drive their own cars and are given two-way radios, radar guns to watch for speeding cars and daily “hot sheets” containing focus areas where police would like an extra presence and additional eyes and ears on the street.
For example, Hendrickson said, if there has been a rash of vehicle prowls in the Lake Padden area, hot sheets might ask volunteers to focus on that area. When they’re not patrolling areas of focus, they keep an eye out in other neighborhoods and interact with the community at events, such as SeaFeast and Ski to Sea.
“It’s hard to put an objective number on how much this has helped,” Johnson said. “It definitely has had an impact though. I think the intangibles are increased visibility. It’s more of a deterrent than anything.”
Johnson said Bellingham Neighbors Together volunteers’ reports of criminal activity, such as suspected drug crimes or areas of frequent traffic offenses, help police shape where to focus their attention.
“I think the volunteers bring a lot of insight,” Johnson said. “Their perspectives are not shaped by working at police departments, so their perceptions are different.”
Johnson and Henerickson said they have not had any problems with volunteers trying to take their responsibilities too far or acting as vigilantes, crediting strong training along with interviews and background checks conducted before training starts and what Johnson called the “volunteer mindset.”
“The people who join the program are willing to learn,” Johnson said. “A lot of them come in without a background in law enforcement, but they want to help our community.”
Because of that mindset, Johnson said he believes the volunteers get a lot from the program and they’ve quickly been accepted by officers.
“I think it speaks volumes about our department,” Johnson said. “I talked to the folks in Vancouver, and they said it took a year, year and a half, before people starting opening up. It happened right away here — I think our officers really enjoy having the volunteers around.”
To volunteer for Bellingham Neighbors Together
Call: Scott Henrickson at 360-778-8633