Exploring the Bellingham Police Explorers program

 

By Sandy Robson

September 17, 2020

This year in early June, after receiving numerous requests from community members at that time, Bellingham Police Department Chief David Doll removed the Thin Blue Line flag emblem/symbol that was displayed on the BPD sign that is placed outside, in front of the department’s building. 

The appearance of the Thin Blue Line flag is interchangeable with, and often associated with, Blue Lives Matter, a pro-law enforcement movement that evolved as a response to the Black Lives Matter movement and protests against police violence toward people who are BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, and People of Color).

The Thin Blue Line flag and its perceived association with the Blue Lives Matter movement have also been, and continue to be, used by white nationalist and white supremacist groups and individuals.

On June 4, this writer sent Chief Doll an email thanking him for removing the symbol from the sign, and asked if he had also taken action to ensure that any other usages of that emblem/symbol which incorporates the Thin Blue Line flag on anything officially associated with the department would be discontinued. 

One of those other usages of the Thin Blue Line symbol by BPD is on the pro-law enforcement campaign, Back the Blue, merchandise such as T-shirts, and sweatshirts which are for sale online through Bonfire.com.

According to Bonfire’s website, it is “A t-shirt fundraising platform that works for individuals, groups, causes, and nonprofits.” The webpage selling the BPD merchandise states that the merchandise is being sold to benefit the Bellingham Police Explorers program.

 

 

This writer had been unaware of the Police Explorers program until running into it back in June of this year when looking for any other usages of the Thin Blue Line symbol by BPD for those June email communications with Chief Doll. Regarding the Bellingham Police Explorers program, the City of Bellingham website states in part:

“The Bellingham Police Explorer Post is a part of the Volunteer Services Program within the Police Department. The post allows high school age young men and women the opportunity to explore and learn about a career in the criminal justice field while serving as a volunteer within the Police Department. The program is service oriented with Explorers helping people, assisting at community events, and aiding police officers with some of their work. The program builds confidence, discipline, and a sense of community.”

According to the City of Bellingham’s website, “Explorers will be trained and utilized in certain police operations. In addition to the work aspect, Explorers together with their adult supervisors and Explorers from other posts, will have the opportunity for social activities such as dances, campouts, field trips, etc.”

Public Safety Cadet/Police Explorers program referenced recently in national news

A similar police youth program was referenced in late August after news broke that 17-year-old, Kyle Rittenhouse, allegedly shot three people with an AR-15 style rifle at an August 25 protest in Kenosha, Wisconsin, leaving two of them dead and one injured. 

Large protests had been ongoing at that time in Kenosha over the August 23 police shooting in that city of a 29-year-old Black man, Jacob Blake, who was shot seven times in the back, and is now partially paralyzed. The white Kenosha police officer who shot him is Rusten Sheskey.

Various news media outlets reported that Rittenhouse, who lives in Antioch, Illinois, has expressed support on social media for Blue Lives Matter and for the Back the Blue campaign. 

Screenshot photo showing Kyle Rittenhouse on the right dressed in a Public Safety Cadet uniform, standing with his mother Wendy Rittenhouse on the left. According to the photo credit, the screenshot used in a September 1, 2020 article published by thesun.co.uk was taken from Twitter. Face of Wendy Rittenhouse was blurred by The Searchlight Review for privacy reasons

Rittenhouse reportedly had participated in a youth police cadet program in his local area. An August 26, 2020, BuzzFeed News article reported

“His [Rittenhouse’s] connections to law enforcement, however, go beyond his vocal support of police on social media. In a statement to BuzzFeed News on Wednesday, the Grayslake Police Department confirmed that Rittenhouse was a former member of the Lindenhurst, Grayslake, Hainesville Police Department’s Public Safety Cadet Program.”

The BuzzFeed News article went on to report:

“According to a description that was recently removed from the department’s official website, the program ‘offers boys and girls the opportunity to explore a career in law enforcement’ through ‘hands-on career activities,’ such as riding along with officers on patrol and firearms training.

“Along with the page describing the Public Safety Cadet Program, the organization’s official Facebook account was deleted after images from 2018 of a boy in a police uniform identified as ‘Kyle’ began to circulate online. BuzzFeed News has not been able to confirm that the boy in the image is Rittenhouse.

“BuzzFeed News has reached out to the Lindenhurst Police Department for comment on the removal of both these pages.”

CBS 2 Chicago had reported in an August 26, 2020, article that based on Rittenhouse’s social media posts, “he appears to have been a former police explorer a program for kids considering a career in law enforcement.”

Wondering if the Public Safety Cadet program referenced by BuzzFeed News or the Police Explorers program referenced by CBS 2 Chicago were similar to the Bellingham Police Department’s Police Explorers program, The Searchlight Review checked online for information regarding the Grayslake Police Department’s Public Safety Cadet program, but it appears there is no online information about the program. 

The Searchlight Review contacted the Grayslake Police Department yesterday, September 16, and asked the person answering the call if there is a Public Safety Cadet program or possibly a Police Explorers program associated with the department, and the response was that the department has a Police Explorers program affiliated with the Boy Scouts of America, but that presently it’s not really active because of COVID-19. Apparently, the Lindenhurst Police Department partners with the Grayslake and Hainesville Police Departments in providing the Explorers program. 

Rittenhouse, who had participated in the Police Explorers/Public Safety Cadet program allegedly took an AR-15 style rifle with him, traveling approximately 15 miles from Antioch, Illinois, to Kenosha, Wisconsin, in order to “defend property during the unrest” that was ongoing in response to the police shooting of Jacob Blake, and ultimately ended up shooting three people, killing two of them and injuring the third. This caused The Searchlight Review to want to learn more about the ways that the local Bellingham Police Explorers program operates, and what young people are being exposed to through the activities of the program. 

Gathering information about BPD’s Police Explorers program

The Searchlight Review sent an August 31 email to one of the two police advisors listed on the Bellingham Police Explorers’ webpage, Sgt. Andria Fountain, Bellingham Police Department, Investigations – Special Victims Unit, and asked her several questions about the Explorer program. Sgt. Fountain responded via email to the questions. The full interview which includes the initial questions asked and follow-up questions along with all of the responses, can be found at the end of this article. 

Screenshot of Bellingham Public Schools webpage featuring the article , “Students Become Bellingham Police Explorers.” Faces of individuals have been blurred by The Searchlight Review for privacy reasons

Upon reviewing Sgt. Fountain’s responses, it’s notable that the BPD Police Explorers are taught how to shoot a firearm, and are taken to the Whatcom County Plantation Rifle Range for that instruction and practice. In her interview, Sgt. Fountain provided a detailed description of that to The Searchlight Review:

“The Explorers do receive training in Firearms Safety and basic use. The training usually occurs once or twice a year, conducted by our Firearms Instructors.

“Firearms Safety encompasses teaching them about the universal firearms safety rules and what each of those rules mean. They also are taught Range safety, how to keep themselves and others safe while at the rage [sic].

“They receive a 4-hour block of instruction. The instruction consists of classroom training on firearms safety, range safety, firearms nomenclature, and some basic instruction on the use; proper stance, handling, sight picture, and what to expect when they pull the trigger.

“Often times this will include a portion where they can handle and ‘dry-fire’ unloaded firearms. This is supervised and conducted with the universal firearms safety rules as a guide. After the classroom portion, the Explorers are allowed the opportunity to shoot on the range. Yes, this instruction occurs that [sic] the Plantation Rifle range. The Explorer to Range Instructor is one-on-one ratio when it comes to firing on the range. They do not draw from a holster; they use a table platform in front of them to pick up the firearm and then ground the firearm when they are done shooting. Often times they will shoot one magazine (13-15 rounds) and then they are done with their course of fire. With the possibility of shooting a second time, once all the other Explorers have had a turn. We only allow them to shoot from that static position, they do not move while holding a firearm and we do not teach them how to do magazine changes.”

According to Sgt. Fountain, “the largest expense to the Police Department for the Explorer Post, is the time for the Officers supervising the group or conducting their training,” and that it is nearly impossible to quantify. She said, “Sometimes the Officer(s) working with the Explorers are on their regularly scheduled duty time (i.e. the Range Officer), shift adjustments are made if staffing allows, and on occasion the Officer(s) will be paid overtime. Since the monies spent come out of various existing budgets, at various times, it is difficult to track or quantify.”

This means that taxpayers are helping to fund the instruction of young people, ages 14 to 21 who are enrolled in the BPD Police Explorers program, in how to shoot a firearm and practice that shooting. 

Screenshot showing a June 2, 2019, Facebook post displayed on the Bellingham Police Department Facebook page showing Police Explorers posing with a militaristic Snohomish County Sheriff’s Office vehicle. Faces have been blurred by The Searchlight Review for privacy reasons

What’s more, last year, Bellingham Police Explorers participated in a SWAT physical challenge. In June of 2019, BPD, on its Facebook page, posted a photo showing several Bellingham Police Explorers casually posed on a militaristic Snohomish County Sheriff’s Office vehicle when they were competing at that time in the Washington Law Enforcement Explorer Challenge. The Facebook post was congratulating the BPD Police Explorers after they took home 1st place in the patrol skills challenge, and 2nd place in the SWAT physical challenge.


Below is the full version of interview questions asked by The Searchlight Review (SR) and the responses from BPD Sgt. Andria Fountain (AF):

SR: It’s my understanding that the age range for the Police Explorer Post program is high school age young men and women, which would include ages 14-21 years. Is this correct?

AF: That is correct. The number of Explorers on the Post at given point in time is roughly 10-20.

SR: The website states that, “Explorers will be trained and utilized in certain police operations.” Can you please describe the kinds of police operations Explorers will be trained and utilized in?

AF: The purpose of the program to allow youth in our community to “explore” the career of Law Enforcement. The trainings usually occur during two, two-hour monthly meetings. The format is a combination of classroom lecture style, practical hands on applications, and occasionally an outing. (No meetings have occurred since Covid 19 hit).

The topics are related to the types of calls Law Enforcement Officers handle. There is also an overview of different career paths/fields in Law Enforcement and how we interact with other agencies. The list below is a general list of what Explorers might learn about:  

Traffic Stops, Building Searches, Washington State Law, Domestic Violence Laws and responding to Domestic Disputes, welfare checks/community care taking calls, processing a DUI, traffic collision investigation, Defensive Tactics to include handcuffing, K9 unit, how to interview and interact with citizens, crime scene processing, radio procedures, and report writing.

They might also go on tours of other facilities: the jail, juvenile detention, and the court houses.

They are also allowed to go on ride-a-longs with an Officer in the field. They can go out on a six-hour ride, one time a month. They are strictly observers and do not act in any official capacity.  

As far as being utilized in certain “police operations” the four most common scenarios for that would be: to help set up traffic barricades for large scale events in town, such as a parade or fun run; to assist with parking details at large scale events such as Ski to Sea; assist in a crime scene search of a large area; to assist in the set-up/take-down or parking for Law Enforcement funerals (agencies having a need for this will often times ask for help from Explorer Posts from across the state).

Explorers are always supervised while acting in any capacity as an Explorer.  Whether it be a classroom training, a field exercise, a ride-a-long, or a detail, our Explorers are always supervised by a Commissioned Officer(s).

SR: The website states that Police Explorers are provided uniforms and equipment by COB. Can you please describe exactly what equipment that includes? 

AF: Prospective Explorers must attend several meetings to see what the program is like, prior to completing an application to enter into the program.  The prospective Explorer will then go through the application process prior to being brought onto the Explorer Post.

The application process entails a background packet, an interview, and a background check; to include reference and grade checks.

Once an Explorer is accepted onto the Post, they are issued a “Class A” uniform, which is a light blue uniform shirt with an Explorer Patch and Explorer rockers on the arms.  The light blue color and markings are different from what our commissioned officers wear, which is dark blue.  They also receive a pair of uniform pants.  In addition, they are issued a jacket and a hat, both of which indicate that they are Explorers.  The Class A uniform is worn during the events mentioned previously.

They are also issued a “Class B” uniform.  Which usually consists of a black shirt that reads Explorer in large letters across the front and back and black BDU pants.  The Class B uniform is worn by Explorers to meetings and practical exercises, so they do not get their Class A uniforms dirty or damage them.

Each Explorer is also issued a ballistic vest, to be worn during ride-a-longs and during range trainings. These vests are extras we have around the station.  They do not get custom vests as vests are $600-800 each.

There is a system in place for Explorers to earn some “gear”.  After they have been a part of the Explorer Post for 6 months, they can start testing to earn the additional gear.  They must show consistent attendance at meetings, pass knowledge tests, and be in good standing with the Post to earn additional gear.

First, they can earn a duty belt. The belt often times has pouches for other gear, such as a handcuff case, a magazine case, and a holster for a firearm, but those pouches are all empty.  

After earning their belt, they can work their way towards a set of handcuffs. They must take the handcuffing class and prove to be proficient in the techniques taught, in order to be issued a set of handcuffs (and key).

They may use red guns (fake molded firearm replicas) in certain scenarios during training, but these are not issued to them. They are brought to the training by the instructor and used only during the training exercise.

They all have explicit instructions that they are not allowed to wear any of the issued Explorer clothing outside of sanctioned Explorer events or training.

The Class A uniforms, jackets, hats, ballistic vests, and duty belts are all kept at the station. The only items they are allowed to take home are the Class B uniforms. The Explorer Post has lockers in both the men’s and women’s locker rooms. When an Explorer arrives at the station for training or for an event, they will get their gear from the lockers and put it on, for the sanctioned activity, then they will take it off and leave it at the station prior to going home.

The Explorers are not allowed to wear their duty belts outside of the station. If they go on a ride-a-long or are out in the public, they are prohibited from wearing the duty belts. The belt is only for in-house training.

We make every effort possible to make sure the Explorers understand that they are not Police Officers and we want to make sure that the public does not see them as Officers either, but as high school students who are Explorers.

SR: Upon completion of the Police Explorer program, do the uniforms and the equipment provided to a Police Explorer get returned to COB/BPD, or is that kept by the Explorer? 

AF: All of these clothing items are issued to them by the Department and are collected when they exit the Explorer Post. The clothing items and all equipment issued is purchased by our Department and is the property of our Department. The only items the Explorers are required to purchase for themselves are the boots/shoes to wear with the uniforms. Obviously, they keep their own boots/shoes when they depart the Explorer Post.

SR: On the website, under the header “Typical Class Work,” one of the things listed is “Firearm safety.” Can you please describe in detail what exactly Firearm Safety entails specific to the Police Explorer program?

AF: The Explorers do receive training in Firearms Safety and basic use. The training usually occurs once or twice a year, conducted by our Firearms Instructors.

Firearms Safety encompasses teaching them about the universal firearms safety rules and what each of those rules mean. They also are taught Range safety, how to keep themselves and others safe while at the rage [sic].

SR: Does that include Explorers learning about the safe handling of firearms, as well as shooting instruction?

AF: They receive a 4-hour block of instruction. The instruction consists of classroom training on firearms safety, range safety, firearms nomenclature, and some basic instruction on the use; proper stance, handling, sight picture, and what to expect when they pull the trigger.

Often times this will include a portion where they can handle and “dry-fire” unloaded firearms.This is supervised and conducted with the universal firearms safety rules as a guide. After the classroom portion, the Explorers are allowed the opportunity to shoot on the range. Yes, this instruction occurs that [sic] the Plantation Rifle range. The Explorer to Range Instructor is a one-on-one ratio when it comes to firing on the range. They do not draw from a holster; they use a table platform in front of them to pick up the firearm and then ground the firearm when they are done shooting. Often times they will shoot one magazine (13-15 rounds) and then they are done with their course of fire. With the possibility of shooting a second time, once all the other Explorers have had a turn. We only allow them to shoot from that static position, they do not move while holding a firearm and we do not teach them how to do magazine changes.

SR: Does part of the education provided to Explorers include them being taken to the Plantation Rifle Range (or any other shooting range) for shooting and training activities of any kind? If so, can you please describe that in detail? 

AF: I think I answered this question as part of my answer above.

Follow-up questions and responses

SR: Specific to the set of handcuffs the Explorers can potentially earn and be issued after passing certain requirements—

If an Explorer has been issued a set of handcuffs, are those handcuffs also required to be kept at the station as you stated is the case with the items you specifically listed (Class A uniforms, jackets, hats, ballistic vests, and duty belts) in the second highlighted section of your response that I outlined with a red box as shown in the screenshot attached below?

AF: That is correct. The handcuffs are stored in a pouch on the duty belt and they are to remain at the station with all of the other gear.

SR: Can you please give me an estimate as to the amount of money/funding that the city of Bellingham provides toward the Police Explorer program annually? 

AF: I am sorry, but there really isn’t a way to quantify how much funding the Explorer Post receives from the City. The Explorer Post does not have its own line item budget. There are a lot of variables that affect the small amount of money that is put towards the Explorer Post each year.

Just a little background on Exploring. Exploring in different careers has been around since the 1970’s. Explorer occurs in a variety of careers; Firefighting, Aviation, Military, and Maritime, just to name a few. Our Department has maintained an Explorer Post from sometime in the early 1980’s. We have several of our personnel across various ranks, who were Explorers for agencies across the state during their high school/college years. Two of our Police Chiefs were actually Explorers on the Bellingham Police Explorer Post in their formative years, former Chief Todd Ramsay and our current Chief David Doll.

From what I know, at one point in time the Explorer Post did have its own line item budget. With budget cuts that have been made over the years, that specific line item was re-allocated to other places. The Department feels that it is important to keep the Explorer Post running, so when the Post does need money, it is pulled from different Police Department budgets, depending on what the money is needed for. The Explorer Post allows youth in our community to earn volunteer hours, while Exploring a potential career options. The Explorer Post also allows the youth in our community to meet and work with other youth from around Whatcom County and around the State.

The uniforms used to outfit the Explorers come from a stockpile of uniforms we have. When Explorers leave the Post, they turn in all of their gear. That gear will be re-issued to another Explorer. We have a stockpile of old uniform pants and jackets from Officers that have gotten new items or have left the Department. The same for the duty belts and ballistic vests, those all come from old Officer items, we don’t buy new ones for the Explorers. If we do need to get a new uniform piece for an Explorer, because we don’t have one in stock that fits them, that will usually come out of the Police Department’s “uniform budget.”

Most of the funds used by the Explorer Post are raised by the Explorers themselves. The Explorers earn money in a variety of ways to help pay for their Class B uniforms, trainings, and events. In the past the Explorer Post has been hired to work events occurring here in town. They have been hired by race event coordinators to help set up signs and cones for large-scale races. The have been hired by the event coordinators for the Portland to Vancouver bicycle ride, to off-load the luggage of the bicycle riders at the hotel the riders are staying at. The Explorers would off-load all the luggage from a large truck and stage it in an area of the hotel for the riders to pick up when they arrived at the hotel (on their bicycles). The Explorer Post would then return the next morning to take the luggage from the staged area and load it back onto the truck. For several years, the Explorers were hired by Circus Gatti to help with parking and cleaning. The show was out at the Lynden Fair Grounds. The Explorers would direct cars to get them parked in an orderly fashion in a large grass field. They would also clean the grandstands between the shows. Over the years, the Explorer Post has also sold custom made stuff animals, t-shirts, and blankets to raise money. They have also participated in a variety of car washes, bake sales, and the like, just like other youth organizations trying to raise money in our community.

The largest expense to the Police Department for the Explorer Post, is the time for the Officers supervising the group or conducting their training. Again, this is nearly impossible to quantify. Sometimes the Officer(s) working with the Explorers are on their regularly scheduled duty time (i.e. the Range Officer), shift adjustments are made if staffing allows, and on occasion the Officer(s) will be paid overtime. Since the monies spent come out of various existing budgets, at various times, it is difficult to track or quantify.

There really isn’t a lot of consistency to the expenditures either. Every month and every year is different, depending on schedules and events. For example, our Explorer Post has been on hiatus since Covid 19 hit, so there have been zero dollars spent on the Explorer Post since March this year.

I know this is not the specific answer you were looking for, but it is the best explanation I can provide to try and explain why I can’t answer your question.

SR: In terms of the the various things that Police Explorers will learn about, and receive training in, does that include learning about de-escalation, and training in de-escalation techniques? If so, can you provide some details about that?

AF: As Officers we complete “official” de-escalation training each year.  

However most of our trainings are built around de-escalation techniques. Basic de-escalation techniques include: displaying empathy, being respectful, tone of voice, trying to be non-threatening, and setting limits. These are concepts we try to employ in our interactions with citizens every day. While the Explorers don’t necessarily take a State sanctioned de-escalation training/class, de-escalation is embedded in most of their training, just as it is with us.