Special Reports

From clubs to laptops, police work has changed

The Bellingham Police Department got off to an inauspicious beginning.

It was November 1903, at the first joint meeting of the Fairhaven and Whatcom city councils, as council members took steps toward formation of the new city of Bellingham, which had already been endorsed by voters. One item on the agenda was the decision to drop disciplinary action against police officer Henry Schroeder for drinking on duty.

Council members agreed it would be unfair to single out Schroeder, since an investigation showed that all but two or three of the force of about 20 officers drank on duty, often accepting free drinks from saloon keepers. Council members voted to censure the police chief, and let it go at that. The department began its formal existence in early 1904. Lt. Dac Jamison, a 28-year veteran of the force who has taken an interest in its history, said Chief O.P. Woody made $95 a month, while patrol officers got $75.

The force also had temporary officers who got $3 a day when called in to serve. The regular force consisted of 12 officers, a matron and a warden. The corridors of police headquarters are adorned with historic photos, some of which go back to that early era. A 1919 photo shows officers sporting the tall, round-topped hats that London bobbies still wear today. Jamison can point out the bulges in their heavy overcoats, evidence of the pistols, clubs, cuffs and other tools of the trade.

1919 was also the year that the first motorcycle officer took to the city's streets. The department and city jail were then housed in the basement of the old City Hall, now the Whatcom Museum of History & Art.

In 1925, according to early historian Lillian Roeder Roth, the city spent $3,000 to install call boxes on streets that officers could use to check in or call for help. Bells attached to traffic lights would ring when dispatchers wanted officers to call in. The system was gradually phased out beginning in the 1960s, but bells were still ringing into the 1970s and call boxes were still operating in the 1980s, Jamison said.

In the 1930s, the new City Hall opened at its current location, 210 Lottie St., housing both police offices and a jail. The head jailer took pride in the fact that he fed each prisoner for an average cost of 27 cents per meal, Jamison said.

In 1973, according to Jamison, the city bought two police dogs from Vancouver, B.C. Bellingham now has the oldest continuously operating canine program in the state, he said.

Four years later, the "patrolman" badge was redesigned to say "patrol officer," because by that time the city had three women on patrol. Carlotta Jarratt had been the first, in 1975. She's now a detective.

Bellingham had gun-toting "police women" long before that, but they were typically assigned to juvenile cases and never joined male officers on everyday patrol, Jamison said.

In the years since, the emphasis in police work has shifted from brute strength to problem solving, with officers working in schools and neighborhoods to develop crime-prevention programs.

In 1993, the department moved into its own building at 505 Grand Ave. Five years later, patrol cars were equipped with laptop computers.