Bellingham police hiring increasing after several tough years of being understaffed

Bellingham is hiring police officers at a faster pace than in the previous three years, and the city did some budget juggling recently to increase staffing by two more positions this year, moving $705,000 for salaries, benefits and other expenses that were allocated for 2024.

City Council members unanimously approved the accounting change at their April 10 meeting.

It allows earlier hiring of two positions budgeted for 2024 and doesn’t affect total funded positions in the 2023-24 budget cycle, Forrest Longman, assistant finance director, told the council.

“It’s a good problem to have, that we have a pipeline of highly qualified candidates wanting to work for us in the city of Bellingham,” Police Chief Rebecca Mertzig said.

“Our recruiters have been doing a phenomenal job of making personal connections in order to just share what we do and what our department’s about. When people are comparing us to others, those personal connections are paying off.”

In October 2022, the department had 14 open positions, Mertizig said in a memo to the council.

Now that’s down to six open positions yet to fill, Deputy Chief Don Almer told The Bellingham Herald in an email on Thursday.

Applications were up 146% in 2022 over 2021, Mertzig said in her memo.

But staffing hasn’t returned to levels that would allow the department to activate several special units that were idled last year, Mertzig told the council in April, and Almer repeated this week.

It can take nearly two years of training and other steps from date of hire for an officer the hit the streets, Mertzig said.

Terminations, resignations and retirements hit the department hard during the COVID-19 pandemic, Almer told The Bellingham Herald in January 2022.

Bellingham faced such a shortage of officers that it was staffing only its patrol and investigations divisions, the two units that are key to answering 911 calls and solving serious crime, Almer said at the time, and that still holds true.

In a screen grab from video, Bellingham Police Chief Rebecca Mertzig discusses an ordinance to criminalize public use of non-prescription drugs during a meeting of the City Council’s Committee of the Whole on March 13, 2023, at City Hall in Bellingham, Wash.

Special units idled

Special units such as bicycle patrols, drug/gang task force, outreach, behavioral health, school resource officers and motorcycle traffic patrols, all were mothballed in early 2022.

Almer said the short-staffing was caused by a combination of the city’s COVID-19 vaccine mandate, higher than normal retirements, and a difficulty recruiting qualified candidates in the wake of the murder of George Floyd and the racial justice movement that followed — including new Washington state laws aimed at police reform.

“A national headline tomorrow could change our outlook. The events of 2020 make it very difficult for people to want to apply for this profession,” Mertzig told the council.

“But I think that’s changing. We‘re really trying to emphasize how we do it in Bellingham and how that is best practices,” she said.

Focus on community policing

Over the past several years, Bellingham has focused on community policing and, in partnership with Whatcom County, started programs such as the Ground-Level Enforcement and Coordinated Engagement, or GRACE, program for residents who are the focus of frequent 911 calls.

Last year, the city and county partnered on an Alternate Response Team that sends mental health professionals instead of police to 911 calls where an officer isn’t required.

Further, Bellingham has created a Downtown Ambassador program and hired a private security firm to add “eyes and ears” that supplement police presence downtown, according to Mayor Seth Fleetwood.

Bellingham Police Department employees talk to two job-seekers about job opportunities during a city-sponsored job fair on May 13, 2022, at Depot Market Square in Bellingham. From left are Michelle Doran, a dispatcher with the What-Comm 911 center, Ruth Baker, a receptionist at Bellingham Police headquarters, and Police Lt. Jason Monson.

Hiring by the numbers

Challenges that the department faces are related to the cost of living in Whatcom County, where the median home price was $560,000 in April and housing costs were the third highest in the state, according to Herald reporting.

Starting pay for police officer recruits is $69,852 annually in Bellingham, increasing to $76,836 after graduation from the state law-enforcement academy.

A veteran officer with five years on the street earns $101,820 a year, not including incentive pay such as having a college degree or proficiency in a second language, Almer said.

Median salary for a patrol officer or sheriff’s deputy employed by a local Washington state government in 2022 was $71,390, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.

Washington state was the second-highest paying state for police officers, with a $92,250 annual mean wage.

Bellingham has 128 police officer positions in 2023-24 budget — up from 122 in the previous two-year cycle.

Police dispatchers fielded 81,306 calls to 911 last year, sending officers to 66,919 incidents — up from 60,842 in 2021, Almer said.

Some 13 officers are eligible for retirement, he said. As many as 10 more officers could leave within the next two years, and another eight by the end of 2027, he said.

Almer told The Herald that Bellingham’s “reputation and progressiveness” is attracting both experienced officers and entry-level candidates.

“Applicants are becoming more interested in a work/life balance and our patrol schedule is very attractive to that. Our in-house psychologist and therapy dog are also attractive to candidates. The high-quality training and the amount of training hours we provide each year compared to other agencies has also been an advantage and a deciding factor for recruits to come to this agency,” Almer said.