You could soon see beat cops in downtown Bellingham. Here’s what’s happening

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You could be seeing more cops on the street in downtown Bellingham, part of a program to offer overtime shifts for “emphasis patrols” in the city center, Mayor Seth Fleetwood said.

Bellingham has been having recent success in hiring to ease its shortage of police officers and the move is a reflection of that, Fleetwood told the City Council at its meeting last Monday.

“There’s going to be more police officers walking the beat in downtown Bellingham,” he said.

Bellingham has been coping with a shortage of police officers that began in 2020, caused by repercussions from the murder of George Floyd and other people of color, new state laws aimed at police accountability, retirements and dismissals over the city’s COVID-19 vaccine requirement.

Because of that, Bellingham last year mothballed its special units — such as traffic cops, bike patrols and the drug task force — and has been staffing only its patrol and investigations divisions, the cops needed to handle 911 calls and catch criminals.

But that doesn’t mean that the department’s special units will be dusted off anytime soon, Police Chief Rebecca Mertzig told the council.

“It’s overtime only. It’s those folks that are doing patrol and investigations that are taking on extra work by signing up for some extra patrol duties on overtime,” Mertzig said.

Downtown has struggled with several issues since the start of the pandemic in 2020, including a sharp rise in homelessness and drug abuse — particularly the powerful opioid fentanyl.

In response, the city created a Downtown Ambassador program, hired private security patrols, partnered with the Downtown Bellingham Partnership for graffiti removal, and started an Alternate Response Team to handle 911 calls that don’t require armed police and is using community service officers to support police officers and detectives by handling some routine tasks.