Whatcom County Introduces New Alternative Policing Programs

Bellingham Police Department
Bellingham PD partners with Whatcom County Health Department to bring new alternatives to policing. Photograph courtesy of Alex Smith

Whatcom County has implemented two new crisis response systems: the Alternative Response Team (ART) and the Sheriff Co-responder Team. These programs, introduced at the beginning of 2023, aim to enhance the handling mental health emergencies by involving behavioral health specialists.

According to a study by the Treatment Advocacy Center, “People with untreated mental illness are 16 times more likely to be killed during a police encounter.”

The ART program is an innovative component of Whatcom County’s first responder system. In emergency crises, whether related to mental health, substance abuse, or any other situation requiring assistance, a behavioral health specialist and a public health nurse will be dispatched instead of a police officer. This initiative eliminates the presence of police in situations where their involvement is unnecessary, allowing them to focus on addressing criminal activity and public health emergencies.

The Sheriff Co-responders Team is a partnership in which a behavioral health specialist accompanies a Sheriff on mental health crisis calls. This collaborative effort aims to ease tension and provide immediate help to individuals in crisis.

The ART program and Co-Responder Team complement the existing Response System Divisions 2022-2024 services timeline. This timeline includes alternative policing and crime regulation programs, such as the GRACE and LEAD programs, which assist repeat offenders and frequent users of emergency services in connecting with case managers who can facilitate positive change. These programs target individuals with substance abuse, mental health struggles, and non-violent criminal offenses.

Protesters in Rochester, N.Y.
People in Rochester, N.Y. gather to protest the killing of 41-year-old Daniel Prude, an African-American man killed by police while experiencing a mental health crisis. Photo courtesy of Lindsay Dedario

In recent years, alternatives to traditional policing have gained attention following public outcry over instances of police brutality. In 2020, the death of Daniel Prude, a 41-year-old African-American man experiencing a mental health crisis, highlighted the need for reform. Mr. Prude, who was in an erratic state and unarmed, died after a confrontation with the police in Rochester, N.Y.

According to the New York Attorney General’s office, Mr. Prude’s brother and another caller had alerted the police about his whereabouts and actions. Upon arrival, the police managed to handcuff Mr. Prude quickly, but he began to spit at them. In response, the officers placed a spit mask over his head, and when Mr. Prude tried to stand up, they restrained him by pinning his head to the ground. Mr. Prude stopped breathing after two minutes of being held down. Although medics were able to resuscitate him, he passed away a week later in the hospital.

Tragically, this incident was not an isolated case, as many individuals in mental health crises have faced violence during encounters with the police. Despite representing less than 1 in 50 U.S. adults, people with untreated mental illnesses are disproportionately affected by such meetings. The increased likelihood of force stems from the frequent interactions between the police and individuals in mental health crises, as most police officers lack sufficient training to handle these situations effectively.

To address this issue, various alternatives to traditional policing and mandatory mental health and de-escalation training for officers have been introduced. Several states, including California and New York, have begun implementing these programs in their emergency response systems to reduce injuries and deaths resulting from interactions between the police and individuals experiencing mental health crises.

GRACE Program Manager Malora Christensen, Base Camp Crisis Services Manager Bill Grimmer, and Base Camp Assistant Manager of Crisis Services Kellie-Anne Reichman
GRACE Program Manager Malora Christensen and the Base Camp office team up to provide mental health services for those in need. Photo courtesy of Respond Whatcom

Whatcom County initiated these new alternatives in 2022 and planned to expand its Response Systems Division with programs such as GRACE, LEAD, ART, and the Co-Responders Team.

These initiatives aim to provide individuals with the required assistance by utilizing professionals trained in mental health services. Case managers are assigned to individuals experiencing frequent crises, offering them the necessary resources to improve their well-being.

Currently, Whatcom Community College (WCC) does not employ the newly introduced mental health alternatives to policing. The Counseling Center at WCC advises individuals experiencing a mental health crisis to contact 911 or the Crisis Care Line for immediate assistance.

WCC offers free counseling services to students who require support for mental health concerns or academic difficulties. The college provides readily available counselors who specialize in addressing these issues. Students can seek help by scheduling an appointment with a WCC counselor.

For cases involving substance abuse, domestic violence, eating disorders, or more severe health issues, WCC can refer students to local agencies that better understand their specific challenges and are better equipped to aid their recovery.

Given the increased focus and public outcry against police brutality, numerous states across the United States aspire to utilize these alternative policing measures to reduce wrongful deaths significantly. By redirecting funding from law enforcement to community and social services, individuals will gain improved access to the mental health support they require.

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