It was approximately 11:36 p.m. on a Friday night in downtown Bellingham, and the remains of smashed, distorted hotdogs from a nearby hotdog cart lay strewn across the sidewalk on the 1200 Block of Railroad Ave.
Minutes earlier, fists were flying and women were screaming just outside of the Bank of America parking garage entrance. As a crowd of people ran over to watch what was going on and Bellingham Police officers arrived to stop the fight from escalating further, a person dressed in black ran away from the scene.
Bryon, a man who had been walking near the area to panhandle some money for dinner, tried to step in to stop the fight before police arrived. Bryon has chosen to keep his last name anonymous.
“I was walking by the garage and saw one guy knock a hotdog out of another guy’s hand, and they just started brawling,” Bryon said. “The guys’ noses and mouths were bleeding and fists were flying.”
Incidents such as this fight are typical for Thursday, Friday and Saturday nights in the Central Business District and are just a portion of the total reported crimes for the area that include assaults, drug violations, alcohol offenses, aggressive panhandling, disorderly conduct and some cases of prostitution, said Lt. Steve Felmley, public information officer for the Bellingham Police. From 2006 to 2008, the number of reported calls in the downtown area jumped from 2,791 to 3,045 for the months of January through October.
Crime prevention officer Mark Young attributes the increase of crime over the past couple years to the city’s population growth, now approaching 80,000, and to the increase in businesses that are open late into the night.
‘Now it never stops’
Ten years ago, the typical shift for a patrol officer in the Bellingham Police Department was a lot different from what it is today, Young said.
“By three in the morning it was just like someone folded up the streets and went home, and there was nobody around anywhere,” Young said. “Now, it never stops. We get all sorts of different kinds of calls 24/7.”
The intersection of Holly Street and Railroad Avenue alone accounts for 25 percent of the total reported calls for the Central Business District in 2008. Young attributes a lot of the downtown criminal activity to alcohol and drug abuse.
If the passerby happens to stop and peer over to the Little Cheerful block on a typical Friday or Saturday night, the visual unearthing may be surprising.
Parked at the corner, a maroon Buick Regal with tinted, foggy windows sits in front of the Little Cheerful. It is 12:20 a.m. on a Friday night.
There is movement inside the car from a dark figure while a man dressed in a plaid jacket, gold chain and a gray trucker hat walks around to the back of the car and opens the trunk. He pulls out a large, plastic tub of black licorice, followed by a small black pouch, taking out an unseen material and stuffing it into a pipe. He looks around, then shuts the trunk and hops into the driver’s seat of the car with the tub of licorice.
There is movement again in the car and the licorice tub is tossed into the back seat.
Faintly, from a distance, the glint of what appears to be a syringe can be seen through the windows. Minutes later, a man outside of the car wearing gold chains and a glow stick around his neck steps forward to the now rolled- down passenger window and passes a wad of bills to an outstretched hand.
The effort to gain control
In 2007, as a crime prevention tactic, the police built a substation in the newly remodeled WTA building on Railroad Avenue and also reimplemented the bicycle patrol, Young said. The bike patrol program has been used off and on over the last 10 years throughout the city, but now they are stationed in the Central Business District due to public request, he said.
Four bike patrol officers, in teams of two, rotate shifts and patrol the central business district seven days a week from 10:20 a.m. to 9 p.m. In the future, the Bellingham police hope to extend the patrol later into the evening once they have the resources to do so.
“The benefits of bike patrol are mobility, you can hear better, see better, and you’re more approachable,” Young said. “If you have to contact somebody on the sidewalk, you don’t have to look for a place to park, you just dismount and walk your bike and talk to them.”
In the evenings, especially from 11 p.m. or midnight until approximately 2 a.m., officers from adjoining areas help patrol the downtown depending on their availability and call loads, Felmley said.
The city of Bellingham installed 10 police surveillance cameras in January 2005 to help with security and to make people feel safer downtown, Felmley said. Officers occasionally use the cameras when they receive a call about an incident happening downtown, but the cameras are not monitored.
“Cameras have mixed information about whether or not they prevent crime,” Felmley said. “But they make honest people feel more safe, and make those who have some devious intentions feel less secure and safe. They are there for the public to know they are there.”
Although there is a consensus that more police presence downtown would be an effective way to help prevent crime from happening in the Central Business District, the police don’t have the resources to do so. However, they have been working with businesses to help make them less susceptible to being victimized, Felmley said.
To discourage criminal activity, owners should have good lighting in the front, back, street side and alleys around their buildings. They should also be observant of things happening in and around their businesses, communicate with their neighboring businesses, install retractable awnings so people are not inclined to loiter when it is raining, and install surveillance cameras; and they should not be afraid to call the police, Felmley said.
Overcrowding in jail
Wendy Jones, chief of corrections at the Whatcom County Jail, said in the past couple of years,she has seen a significant jump in particular bookings such as aggressive panhandling, fights, disorderly conduct and urinating in public.
Prior to 2006, the jail had booking restrictions due to lack of bed space, causing them to book felony crimes rather than misdemeanors, which were ticketed. As a result, police had to concentrate on the biggest dangers to public safety, and misdemeanors would often go overlooked.
“They were tremendously frustrated,” Jones said, “because people knew they could do whatever they wanted in front of the police and only get a ticket.”
In December 2006, a new facility was built and the restrictions were removed, which allowed police to arrest for misdemeanors.
“And then the flood gates opened,” Jones said. “Lifting booking restrictions was like someone shooting a starter pistol.”
Bookings increased significantly and have continued to climb since 2006. There is currently an average of 24 people booked into the jail every day, and 276 people are in jail at any given time, Jones said. There are, however, only six deputies on duty in the jail.
As jail population increases, Jones predicts new restrictions will need to be placed in the next six months due to lack of space. When the new restrictions are put in place, misdemeanors that occur quite frequently in the Central Business District may have to be ticketed once again.
To help avoid conflicts from escalating further, Jones encourages businesses to use basic communication skills with the individuals they believe are creating a problem.
“With aggressive panhandlers you have to be direct,” Jones said. “It is hard because they can be scary, and some of them smell. If you can find a way to talk to that person, it can be like talking to a child in some ways, but explain to them what they need to do and the consequences if they don’t.”
If someone is around the storefront of a business fairly often, business owners can develop a respectful relationship with them.
“You need to treat the people like human beings,” she said. “If you try a softer approach first, a lot of times what you get is people say ‘sure.’ It isn’t rocket science, it is like talking to a 6- or 7-year-old that hasn’t had his or her nap.”
If an individual is carrying a weapon, however, Jones strongly suggests calling the police.
What businesses are doing to help
For the past 10 years, downtown Bellingham has seen numerous additions and remodels as businesses have developed the area and have taken steps towards crime prevention. Bob’s Burgers & Brew replaced the Travel Lodge, Pita Pit replaced the Flame Tavern, Fiamma Burger replaced the Station Pub, and Starbucks took the place of the 20-foot-deep pit on the 100 block of Holly Street.
The Little Cheerful Cafe remodeled the design of its storefront four years ago. The remodel resulted in a drop in cases of vandalism and disorderly conduct in the storefront area, said manager Kelly Huckaby.
The former front wall of the restaurant had a stucco design with small, octagon shaped windows that were often broken after closing, Huckaby said. He recalled one instance in particular when someone was thrown through a Little Cheerful window.
“We came in one morning and found the window broken and blood splattered everywhere,” Huckaby said.
The remodel left the restaurant with new, larger and thicker windows, ceiling lights that shine in and outside of the restaurant, a new front wall and a retractable awning. Huckaby said the retractable awning helps discourage people from loitering in front of the restaurant when it rains.
Even with the remodel that has reduced the amount of vandalism and petty crime, Little Cheerful staff still find weekly graffiti and vandalism on the storefront, empty beer bottles, condoms, backpacks holding g-strings and toothbrushes (which he refers to as prostitute bags), smashed pharmacy bottles and hundreds of cigarette butts littering the doorway and nooks and crannies of the building.
Huckaby said that loitering and the random items his staff finds every morning don’t bother him as the site is relatively safe during business hours; however, the crime that happens outside the business does bother him, especially when customers complain because they have seen some of the incidents.
“There’ll be two guys outside listening to a loud stereo, drinking beer at 9 a.m., and there will be families here eating breakfast while the people outside yell obscenities at each other,” he said. “This seems to be a good spot for yelling.”
This really isn’t the reason he did this, he just thinks it will happen too. In late October Huckaby started a soup kitchen with his wife that is open on Sunday nights at the Little Cheerful from 6 to 7 p.m. He feels that the kitchen not only helps the restaurant be a part of the community, but also aids in crime prevention through building rapport with the downtown population.
“They might be less likely to trash the place if they see that we care about them,” Huckaby said. “They are already out there, we’re just going to give them a sandwich while they are out there. Doing something that makes you a part of the community might help.”
Huckaby believes that other businesses should try to communicate with the people who might be causing trouble on their business front, and show them respect in order to gain it in return.
“If you have a rapport with them, they are most likely to listen and honor your request,” he said.