Op-Ed

Here’s what makes a successful partnership between a police department and a community

The city of Bellingham is a special place. Although we have similar challenges as other cities, our unique city requires unique solutions. Since 1990, our Police Department’s adoption of a community policing philosophy has allowed us to meet these challenges in a way that reflects our collective values and makes us a leader nationwide.

Community policing can be defined in many ways when considering a community’s needs. To us, community policing is a philosophy and a strategy that provides flexibility to meet local needs and priorities as they change over time. It’s a cooperative effort on the part of the community, as a whole, to police itself, address the needs and concerns of the people, and prevent crime before it happens.

Constant conversation

Our definition reflects the words of Sir Robert Peel, who believed that “the police are the public and the public are the police.” We believe that policing is a constant conversation with our citizens, and we engage in that conversation through proactive problem solving, attending public events and neighborhood meetings, working with the school districts and kids, reaching out to neighbors and residents through social media, getting to know businesses and shop owners, assisting citizens with a variety of concerns and needs, maintaining a positive presence, and building relationships.

But we can’t do this alone. Building partnerships means that we rely on residents, business owners and volunteers to help us keep everyone safe in our great city. This can be challenging in a time when the news is often filled with national reports of conflict between police and their communities. Frequently our Bellingham officers are painted with that same brush. We have worked hard to have a positive, cooperative approach to policing in Bellingham, and we will continue to engage in community policing because it’s who we are as a community.

Problem solving

For the Bellingham Police Department, our community policing philosophy takes many forms as we employ it at all levels in the organization. All of our personnel engage in proactive problem solving. Specifically, our Neighborhood Police Officers and Neighborhood Anti-Crime Team help facilitate problem-solving and work with the Homeless Outreach Team. Our Community Advisory Council meets monthly with police staff members to discuss community issues. We use the Crime Prevention Through Environmental Design program to help advise businesses how to create a safe environment. Our body-worn cameras, which we introduced in 2014 and are now worn by all uniformed personnel, increase accountability and transparency of our officers.

While all of these programs help define our community policing philosophy, we believe three specific efforts really stand out: accreditation, fair-and-impartial policing training and crisis-intervention training.

State accreditation

The Bellingham Police Department was awarded law enforcement accreditation by the Washington Association of Sheriffs and Police Chiefs in 2016. We initiated the accreditation process in 2014 and worked for two years to meet the policy and practice requirements to satisfy compliance with the organization’s 133 standards. This is a significant accomplishment and reflects our desire to be at the forefront of professional policing practices and programming in the state of Washington. We are very proud of our department and the men and women whose hard work and dedication have made this recognition possible.

Our training efforts have also helped us maintain best practices. All of our commissioned police personnel completed fair and impartial police training in 2016. This ongoing training helps us understand and identify implicit bias in ourselves and others, and provides strategies to help us override such bias in an effort to promote police legitimacy, provide procedural justice and continue to enhance the organization’s overall mission of “committed to community.”

Crisis intervention

We are also the first city in the state to have all of our commissioned officers receive ongoing crisis-intervention training. This training provides de-escalation skills and scenario-based training when responding to crises so officers have additional tools to do their jobs safely and effectively with minimal force. Partnerships also help keep people with mental illness out of jail, get them into treatment and onto the road to recovery.

These are just a few of the many things we are doing to promote our organizational philosophy of community policing, and it’s an ever-evolving process. We live our mission of “committed to community” every day – they aren’t just words to us. We believe in empowering our officers with decision-making, and they are engaged in our mission not just when they are on duty, but also as coaches, tutors, volunteers and neighbors. Like any agency, the department is made up of human beings, and while none of us is perfect, when problems arise in the organization, they are addressed. We strive to do the right thing and we think we’re on the right path.

But we need your help. Without the partnership of all of our residents and neighbors, we have no legitimacy. We recognize that the authority of the badge is not enough – we also need the public trust, and recognize that we earn that public trust through our daily actions. We invite you to see for yourself what we mean by “committed to community.” If you would like us to come to a meeting, talk with your youth group, or just meet with you one-on-one, don’t hesitate to reach out to us at 360-778-8800.

We can’t do this alone, but together Bellingham can continue to be a national leader on how to create a positive, successful partnership between our Police Department and our community.

Cliff Cook is the Bellingham police chief. This is one of a series of monthly Civic Agenda reports The Bellingham Herald invited Bellingham Mayor Kelli Linville to provide to share updates about city of Bellingham issues and projects. She invites citizens to contact her at 360-778-8100 or mayorsoffice@cob.org.

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