Bellingham launches ‘Neighborhood Police Officer’ program

The Bellingham Police Department hopes a new program launched this month will help strengthen its relationship with residents and alleviate ongoing neighborhood issues.

The Neighborhood Police Officer program will designate two officers to work full-time with the community on issues that affect quality of life, said Police Chief Cliff Cook.

“An oversimplification would be that they’re a neighborhood problem solver,” he said. “What we‘re trying to do is provide a direct connection with residents in our city.”

Cook said the officers essentially will act as a liaison between the police and residents, and they will be notified about ongoing issues not an emergency. Officers would then work with the city to coordinate resources and solve the issue.

Officers Dante Alexander and Eric Osterkamp will be the first Neighborhood Police Officers, or NPOs. They will not be subject to general 911 calls, but will have the ability to assist other officers. Alexander will cover the north side of Bellingham, and Osterkamp the south side. Whatcom Creek will divide the two areas.

The two officers were chosen from a pool of applicants because of their positive reputation in the community, Cook said.

Police Lt. Bill Slodysko, who will supervise each NPO, said a string of vehicle prowls in a neighborhood could be one issue the officers deal with. They also could direct a code enforcement officer to handle a potential litter or other problem.

Contact information for the two officers will soon be posted on the police website, and the NPOs will regularly meet with neighborhood associations. Previously, police assigned sergeants to particular neighborhoods, but Slodysko said they were often too busy with routine 911 calls and could not focus on neighborhood problems. He said general 911 response times will not be affected by the change.

“It makes a more accessible point of contact for folks in the neighborhood to bring out these issues that are chronic in neighborhoods,” Slodysko said.

As police chief in Vancouver, Wash., Cook implemented the same NPO program. The police chief who replaced Cook in Vancouver roughly one year ago, James McElvain, said he has no intention of dismantling the program.

“It brings a lot of value to the community,” McElvain said.

People have fully embraced the program, he said, and even expressed concern that he would get rid of it when he was appointed police chief. He said NPOs receive hundreds of emails per month from the area they are assigned, with issues ranging from graffiti to drug dealing.

Cook has wanted to implement the NPO program in Bellingham since he became police chief in 2013, but the department lacked the staffing to do so. Eventually, he would like to expand it to four NPOs, such as in Vancouver.

Cook said the Bellingham Police Department has a different reputation than some other departments in the nation that don’t have a strong relationship with the community. The NPO program is a way to further enhance a positive relationship and create a safer city, he said.

“The whole idea is to be proactive and make efforts to be more prevention-oriented,” Cook said.