Whatcom County Sheriff’s Office misinformed law enforcement agencies about local anti-pipeline group


Red Line Salish Sea banner on display at a September 30, 2017 march from Birch Bay State Park to Peace Arch State Park

By Sandy Robson

August 25, 2018

The Whatcom County Sheriff’s Office found itself in the news last month in a July 17, 2018 article published by The Intercept entitled, “The U.S. and Canada are preparing for a new Standing Rock over the Trans Mountain tar sands pipeline.” In late May of this year, the pipeline expansion project proposed by Kinder Morgan Inc. was purchased along with the existing Trans Mountain pipeline between Alberta and British Columbia. The purchaser was the Canadian federal government.

Four refineries along the Salish Sea are receiving processed tar sands bitumen fed through a branch of the existing Trans Mountain pipeline: Shell’s Puget Sound Refinery and the Andeavor Anacortes Refinery which are both located in Skagit County, Washington, and the BP Refinery and Phillips 66 Refinery which are located in Whatcom County, Washington.

There has already been a good deal of resistance to the proposed pipeline expansion, and that is growing. Indigenous nations within Canada have been some of the strongest resisters to the expansion which, if built, would add a new pipeline to the existing Trans Mountain line that would triple the capacity of tar sands bitumen flowing through the line. The expansion of the pipeline would run through unceded Indigenous territories.

The Intercept article reported that law enforcement agencies on both sides of the U.S. – Canada border have been preparing for potential escalation of protests and resistance to the proposed pipeline project.

In response to the fact that the pipeline expansion involves Whatcom County and Skagit County on the U.S. side of the border, law enforcement agencies have chosen to monitor anti-pipeline activists on social media in an attempt to mine intel about pipeline protests, and activists’ potential travel across the border for pipeline protests.  According to The Intercept’s July 17 article:

“The sheriff’s office in Whatcom County monitored activists’ plans to travel to British Columbia for a recent Trans Mountain protest, and information collected was shared with U.S. Customs and Border Protection, the Washington State Patrol, and the Washington State Fusion Center. The sheriff’s office has arranged at least two multiagency law enforcement trainings on protest response in the last year and a half.”

Will Parrish, one of the two reporters who wrote The Intercept article, had obtained public records from Whatcom County, some of which, were highlighted in the article. A couple of those email records highlighted by The Intercept were of particular interest to Searchlight Review.

Deputy Director Gargett’s ‘awareness only email’ leads to misinformation 

John Gargett, Deputy Director of the Whatcom County Sheriff’s Office Division of Emergency Management sent a March 8, 2018 email to U.S. Customs and Border Protection, Whatcom County Sheriff’s Office personnel, Washington State Patrol officers, a City of Bellingham Police officer, and a City of Ferndale Police officer. In his email, Gargett disseminated a March 8 Seattle Times article re-published that same day in the online version of The Bellingham Herald. It was entitled “This could be like Standing Rock’ as B.C. braces for weekend oil pipeline protest.”

Deputy Director Gargett told the recipients of his March 8 email that the communication was “an awareness only email.” He relayed that, according to the March 8, Bellingham Herald article regarding the the then-upcoming protests against the Kinder Morgan Trans Mountain tar-sands oil-pipeline expansion project, it was suggested that the protest “is expected to spill into the streets of British Columbia Saturday with massive civil disobedience demonstrations,” and would include “indigenous leaders from along the pipeline route and the U.S.”

Gargett further informed the email recipients that it was cited in the article that “there are groups opposing the pipeline on our side of the border.” He provided a link to the website for Protect The Inlet, and a link to a March 10, 2018 Protect The Inlet Facebook event. 

According to the Facebook event, it was for the then-scheduled march in B.C. to “stop the dangerous Kinder Morgan pipeline and tanker project.” That event was the launch of the Indigenous-led Watch House project, a traditional Coast Salish Watch House, Kwekwecnewtx, a structure built on unceded land of the Tsleil-Waututh Nation’s people. Protect The Inlet’s website states: “#ProtectTheInlet is the spiritual home of the resistance against the Trans Mountain Pipeline and tanker project in the unceded territories of the Coast Salish peoples.”

Deputy Director Gargett pointed out to recipients of his March 8 email that there was nothing in the article or posted online that suggested anything was planned for Whatcom County. He reminded them to be aware that there are the Kinder Morgan pipeline, storage, and stations here in Whatcom County as well as Skagit County that serve the refineries. Gargett added that “it was a Kinder Morgan pump station in Skagit County that was taken over last year by activists.”

What Gargett referred to as a take over by activists last year was the October 24, 2017 incident in which a 28-year-old Michigan man and a 41-year-old California woman were arrested after they allegedly broke into the Kinder Morgan Trans Mountain Pipeline facility and attempted to turn a valve on the oil pipeline, according to Skagit County Chief of Patrol, Chad Clark, who was referenced in an October 24, 2017 GoSkagit.com article.

In response to Deputy Director Gargett’s email, Lt. Steven Gatterman of the Whatcom County Sheriff’s Office, sent a March 8, 2018 email reply which also was sent to all of the recipients copied on the deputy director’s original email.

In his March 8 email, Lt. Gatterman informed recipients that the Whatcom County Sheriff’s Office had been tracking the March 10 event for a few weeks, and that the protests had already started in B.C. with some roadblocks happening the day before (March 7), and more that were planned for March 8. He told email recipients it was anticipated that there would be several thousand demonstrators at the Lake City Way Sky Train Station, in Burnaby, B.C., on Saturday, March 10.

The lieutenant also reported that the Whatcom County Sheriff’s Office had alerted its special events team (Civil Disturbance Unit) and that it would be disseminating intel and information to patrol about Kinder Morgan targets in Whatcom County. Gatterman added that the Sheriff’s Office had additionally been in touch with the Washington State Patrol District 7 Rapid Deployment Force Commander regarding the event, and that the Sheriffs Office’s Crime Analysis Unit was continuing to search for intelligence information.

Sheriff’s Office lieutenant provides inaccurate intel 

There were multiple disturbing inaccuracies and references contained in Lt. Gatterman’s March 8 email which are outlined below. His email prefaced a March 28, 2018 joint training exercise hosted by the Whatcom County Sheriff’s Office and conducted in cooperation with the Washington State Patrol. The training, which centered on crowd control, was held on the grounds of Whatcom Community College, and was offered to various law enforcement personnel.

In his March 8 email, Lt. Gatterman provided what he said were “a few things for consideration,” the first of which, was information he provided about what he referred to as “the local No-DAPL group” (now named Red Line Salish Sea). He said it was expected that the group would be active on Saturday (March 10), but because the group keeps things under the radar, it was unknown whether their activity would be in B.C., or locally. There were no reports by local news media or posts on local social media of any Trans Mountain Pipeline protest actions which occurred in Whatcom County on March 10.

According to its Facebook page, Red Line Salish Sea (formerly known as the Bellingham #NoDAPL Coalition) is indigenous-led, Bellingham-based organizing, formed in solidarity with the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe’s opposition to the Dakota Access Pipeline (DAPL) project.

Lt. Gatterman went on in his email to describe “the local No-DAPL group,” asserting that it was the same group that had blocked State Route 539 and Interstate 5 over the past 1.5 years, using vehicles and “Sleeping Dragons,” which he explained are designed to delay law enforcement efforts to clear the blocked roadway. He also took the opportunity to point out that, “Over the past few weeks 7 of their members of their group had been charged locally [in] reference to the I-5 blockage.”

It was reported by one or more news media outlets that individuals associated with the Bellingham #NoDAPL Coalition were allegedly involved to some degree in organizing the February 11, 2017 NoDAPL peaceful march and demonstration that went onto Interstate 5 in Bellingham, blocking the roadway for approximately 45 minutes until water protectors/demonstrators left on their own accord.

However, it is important to note that the same group, Bellingham #NoDAPL Coalition, was not involved in organizing the May 7, 2016 blockage of State Route 539, as Lt. Gatterman had stated was the case in his March 8, 2018 email.

In the multiple news accounts which reported on that road blockage on May 7, 2016, the day of then-candidate for U.S. President, Donald Trump’s campaign rally in Lynden, Washington, there was no mention of the Bellingham #NoDAPL Coalition to substantiate Lt. Gatterman’s assertion.

Even more significant, is the fact that the Bellingham #NoDAPL Coalition group was not yet in existence back in May of 2016, when the State Route 539 blockage occurred.

Another disturbing inaccuracy coming from Lt. Gatterman’s March 8 email was that in describing what he referred to as “the local No-DAPL group,” the lieutenant also incorrectly attributed an act of vandalism to the group, which he said had occurred last year at a Kinder Morgan facility in Skagit County.

The July 17, 2018 Intercept article reported: “In an interview with The Intercept, Gatterman acknowledged that his note might have been mistaken and the incident he referenced was likely one carried out by a separate group.”

Seeking answers about potential racial profiling by Sheriff’s Office employee

In his March 8 email to law enforcement personnel, Lt. Gatterman also reported:

“A Native American male came to the Sheriff’s Office today asking for information on how to obtain a right-of-way permit to block a road. He was described as polite and organized, but would not give the location or reason for blocking the road. He indicated that he ‘did not want the Sheriff’s Office to be caught off guard.’ This man has not yet requested a permit from Public Works.”

As a result of Lt. Gatterman having wrongly attributed “the vandalism to the Kinder Morgan facility in Skagit County last year” to “the local No-DAPL group,” and his decision to point out that the person who inquired about a right-of-way permit was a Native American, Searchlight Review contacted the lieutenant, via email, on July 17, 2018, asking four questions related to concerns about those two actions. (The July 17 email was sent before Searchlight Review’s further research confirmed the additional misstatement relating to the State Route 539 road blockage.) Those four questions are shown below:

1) Is it standard protocol for Sheriff’s Office employees to note and then reference, in internal email communications, the race, cultural heritage or ethnicity of individuals who simply come into the Sheriff’s Office inquiring about right-of-way permits to block a road? 

That practice can appear to be a form of racial profiling which supposedly the Whatcom Sheriff’s office has emphatically stated in the past its officers do not do.

2) Can you please explain what possible bearing someone’s race, cultural heritage, or ethnicity has on their inquiry with the Whatcom County Sheriff’s Office about a right-of-way permit to block a road?

3) If this practice that apparently occurred (according to your March 8, 2018 email) is indeed frowned upon and not supposed to occur within the Whatcom County Sheriff’s Office, what will the Sheriff’s Office then do about this particular action which appears to represent a form of racial profiling?

The Intercept article also reported: “Gatterman’s email to state and federal law enforcement inaccurately claimed the group was responsible for vandalism to a Kinder Morgan facility in a neighboring county in 2016. In an interview with The Intercept, Gatterman acknowledged that his note might have been mistaken and the incident he referenced was likely one carried out by a separate group.”

In your March 8 email you had stated: “This local group [local NoDAPL group now known as Red Line Salish Sea] was also responsible for vandalism to a Kinder Morgan Facility in Skagit County last year.”

4) If in fact your statement I quoted above was a mistake and you were incorrect, as you seemed to tell The Intercept, have you subsequently then contacted all of the recipients of your March 8, 2018 email which include members of local, state, and federal law enforcement, to inform them that the local NoDAPL group (now known as Red Line Salish Sea) was not, in fact, the group responsible for vandalism to a Kinder Morgan facility in Skagit County? If you have not done that, will you be doing so in the near future?

Lt. Gatterman sent a brief reply on July 18 which said, “Our office will reply as soon as possible.” After not receiving his response to the questions by July 20, Searchlight Review contacted, via email, Whatcom County Sheriff Bill Elfo, that day, asking him if he could respond to those four questions.

Lt. Gatterman: ‘The use of race as a descriptor was relevant’

On July 23, Lt. Gatterman sent an email reply to Searchlight Review responding to all four questions. In addressing questions 1 through 3, he wrote in his email that the use of race as a descriptor was relevant for several reasons which he listed:

1.    The Sheriff’s Office had been made aware of a planned mass protest in British Columbia that was scheduled to occur within 3 days of when the man came into the Sheriff’s Office.

2.    It was highly unusual that the man would not identify which road(s) he wanted to block. 

3.    The BC protest was being led, at least in part, by indigenous or first nation members.

4.    The protests were being described as the next Standing Rock.

5.    The Sheriff’s Office had previously responded to pipeline protests that involved the unlawful blocking of highways. At least one of these protests involved a Native American group, and the violation of Native American rights was an issue being protested.

Gatterman went on in his email sent to Searchlight Review to explain that the “Washington State legislature defined racial profiling as the illegal use of race or ethnicity as a factor in deciding to stop and question, take enforcement action, arrest, or search a person or vehicle with or without a legal basis under the United States Constitution or Washington State Constitution.”

The lieutenant added that “Whatcom County Sheriff’s Office policy prohibits the inappropriate reliance on race, ethnicity or national origin as a factor in deciding whether to take law enforcement action or to provide service.”

Gatterman’s responses about racial profiling were wrapped in the context of taking enforcement action. However, the incident of a Whatcom County Sheriff’s Office employee having noted that the permit requestor was Native American, and Lt. Gatterman’s decision to include that in an email communication to federal, state and local law enforcement personnel, speaks to an institutionalized and/or systemic form of profiling individuals based on race, ethnicity, religion or national origin.

In reading Lt. Gatterman’s list of the five reasons he provided Searchlight Review as to why the “use of race as a descriptor was relevant,” those reasons do not appear to justify a Whatcom County Sheriff’s Office employee noting the race or ethnicity of the individual who inquired about the permit.

Gatterman wrote in his email response to Searchlight Review:

“In my email I did not use race as a basis for enforcement action. I used the description of the man’s race to show a possible connection between past events, the planned protest in British Columbia, and the possibility of a related action in Whatcom County. Our community has expressed an expectation that we be prepared to respond and support the right to lawful assembly, as well as to deal with issues caused by unlawful assembly.”

It would seem that the targeting of suspected anti-pipeline activists, and the surveillance of those individuals and indigenous-led groups, further perpetuates the already existing racial and/or ethnic profiling by law enforcement. And, if by “past events,” Gatterman meant the events he attributed to “the local No-DAPL group” (Red Line Salish Sea) in his March 8 email, it appears that he may be incorrect when he attributed some of those events or actions to their group

Sheriff’s Office lieutenant sees no need to correct his misstatement 

At the conclusion of his email to Searchlight Review, Lt. Gatterman responded to question number 4:

“Regarding the statement made in an email about the local No DAPL group being responsible for the damage to a Kinder Morgan facility in Skagit County, I have already admitted that it appears another group was responsible for the damage.  At the time I was simply passing on the information that I had. I do not feel it is necessary to update the recipients of the email as it was not, nor should be, relied upon as a deciding factor in any type of enforcement action.”

The July 17 Intercept article reported: “In an interview with The Intercept, Gatterman acknowledged that his note might have been mistaken and the incident he referenced was likely one carried out by a separate group.” That statement does not appear to indicate that the lieutenant clearly admitted he had wrongly attributed the vandalism at the Kinder Morgan facility in Skagit County to the “local No-DAPL group.”

Providing clear, accurate, and reliable details should be important to the Whatcom County Sheriff’s Office whether those details are contained in internal communications, in email communications to other law enforcement, or in statements provided to the media and to the general public. It would seem especially important when attributing a criminal action to a particular group as Lt. Gatterman did with “the local No-DAPL group.”

Searchlight Review contacted the Skagit County Sheriff’s Office inquiring about any possible acts of vandalism or similar criminal incidents which may have occurred at the Kinder Morgan Trans Mountain Pipeline facility over the last several years. The support services technician for the Skagit County Sheriff’s Office responded, via email, saying there have been only two incidents which occurred at the Kinder Morgan Trans Mountain Pipeline facility over the last several years; one in October 2016, and one in October 2017.

After reviewing the public records released to Searchlight Review by the Skagit County Sheriff’s Office, and after reviewing news reports about those two incidents, there is no indication that the Bellingham #NoDAPL Coalition (now named Red Line Salish Sea) was involved in either of those.

For Lt. Gatterman not to realize the importance of correcting the inaccurate information he provided to federal, state, and local law enforcement personnel about the Bellingham #NoDAPL Coalition contradicts the stated vision, mission and values listed on the Whatcom County Sheriff’s Office website.

According to the Whatcom County Sheriff’s Office website’s “Vision, Mission and Values” page, one of the listed values is “Integrity,” and under that header it states: “We will maintain credibility with each other and our constituents through honesty, consistency, loyalty and accountability.” Under the “Mission” section, it states: “Upholding the highest standards of performance, behavior and ethics through our conduct, appearance, demeanor and decision making.”

What is the Sheriff’s Office’s interest in monitoring the C2C Facebook page?

Along with the multiple inaccuracies and the inappropriate reference to an individual’s race pointed out above, there was one additional disconcerting reference that Lt. Gatterman made when he chose to include the Community to Community Development (C2C) group in his list of a “few things for consideration” in his March 8 email reply to Deputy Director Gargett. Gatterman told the email recipients that the group had a scheduled event planned for Saturday (March 10), which was the “Re-Imagining Solidarity Conference” to be held at the University of Washington.

C2C, according to its Facebook page, is “an eco-feminist women-led organization striving to reclaim our humanity by redefining power to end settler colonialism, capitalism, and patriarchy in their external and internalized forms.” The group’s Facebook page further points out that C2C is an action oriented organization working towards food sovereignty and a solidarity economy, and it provides support to grassroots front-line farm worker leaders and farm worker families.

Gatterman told the law enforcement personnel recipients of his March 8 email that he was not sure if C2C’s March 10, 2018 conference and the posts made on the Protect The Inlet Facebook page — which requested that people stop talking about the meeting/training being organized in Washington — were related.

It is unclear what motivated Lt. Gatterman to have chosen to bring C2C into his email relating to the March 10, Trans Mountain Pipeline project protest slated to occur in B.C. In fact, in reviewing C2C’s Facebook page and looking back at posts made in February of this year which was the month leading up to the protest, and going through the entire month of March, there was not one post pertaining to pipelines. The bulk of the posts were about farm worker justice, immigration, food sovereignty, and other issues in line with the group’s mission.

It is possible that the recipients of Gatterman’s March 8 email may now wrongly associate C2C’s organization with pipeline protests and related actions, and that the Whatcom County Sheriff’s Office may likely continue its monitoring of the group’s Facebook page as has apparently already been occurring.

The multiple inaccuracies and references contained in Lt. Gatterman’s March 8, 2018 email he sent to federal, state, and local law enforcement are concerning, and are potentially damaging to both Red Line Salish Sea and C2C in terms of their groups’ reputations and potential treatment by law enforcement in the future, and speaks to the continued need for the development of a civilian oversight board to watch over activities of the Whatcom County Sheriff’s Office.