Bellevue police town hall addresses racism stemming from COVID-19 outbreak

The virtual meeting was also translated into Mandarin.

If and when a hate crime or biased-related incident happens, call the police.

This was the main message members of the Bellevue Police Department (BPD) had for the public during a virtual town hall held April 8.

The meeting was held in response to nationwide reports of members of the Asian and Asian American communities being targeted as a result of the COVID-19 outbreak. The first cases of COVID-19 occurred in China and as a result, people of Chinese and Asian descent have been seen by some as carriers of the coronavirus who could infect others.

Bellevue Police Chief Steve Mylett said he has seen news reports of incidents targeting Asians nationwide and has personally heard of situations locally. For this, he apologized to those who have been targeted for what they experienced.

In addition to Mylett, BPD assistant chief Carl Kleinknecht attended the virtual town hall meeting to answer questions submitted by members of the public. BPD Det. Zhong Zhu was also in attendance to translate the meeting into Mandarin.

BPD’s initial outreach to encourage community members to report incidents was targeted toward the Chinese community but a statement submitted prior to the meeting read, “this is not a ‘Chinese only issue.’ It affects other Asians and Pacific Islanders.”

Mylett agreed.

“That statement is very, very true. Absolutely true. One hundred percent true,” he said. “Many people cannot distinguish a person of Chinese heritage from any other Asian group, like Koreans, Japanese, Vietnamese or any other heritage in the Asian community.”

Mylett apologized if their initial outreach fell short. It was not intentional, he said and they did not try to exclude any other groups.

Bellevue Mayor Lynne Robinson was also there with a message for all Bellevue residents.

“We are witnessing the strength of the Eastside. There’s a sense of community and collaboration,” she said. “But unfortunately, I’ve also heard of instances of hate, bias and intimidation toward our Chinese and broader Asian Pacific Islander community.”

Bellevue welcomes the world and diversity is one of the city’s strengths, Robinson said. COVID-19 affects everyone and when the pandemic is over, she said, the city will continue to value all of its neighbors.

Firearm purchasing and ownership

Mylett said he wanted to hold the virtual town hall because in late February, they saw a 150 percent spike in firearm transfers and applications for concealed pistol licenses. As previously reported, that spike continued to rise in March as BPD saw an increase of more than 300 percent in its firearm transfer applications. In a typical month, the city receives about 158 applications. From March 1-23, it had 640.

“As we looked into the issue, we discovered many of the names appeared to be people of Asian heritage, specifically, people with Chinese surnames,” Mylett said during the virtual town hall.

Questions about purchasing and owning guns were submitted to BPD, including whether a person needs a permit to purchase a gun.

Kleinknecht said the short answer is no. In order to legally purchase a firearm in Washington, an individual must be 21 years old or older, have no felony convictions and be a Washington resident. However, miscellaneous crimes such as domestic violence may prevent an individual from being able to purchase a firearm, he said.

An individual can purchase a permit, which usually takes about three months to acquire and would allow the gun owner to carry a concealed weapon where it is permitted by law, Kleinknecht said.

The question of gun purchasing and ownership for non-citizens and green card holders was also raised. In response, Kleinknecht directed people to the state attorney general’s website, which has a section on frequently asked questions regarding firearms and provides links to state laws regarding firearms.

According to RCW 9.41.171, a person who is not a U.S. citizen may carry or possess a firearm if they are a permanent resident, have obtained a valid alien firearm license or meet specific requirements to carry or possess a firearm without a license.

In response to a question about training to use a firearm, Mylett said anyone who purchases a firearm must make every effort to learn how to use it and all safety practices that come with owning that firearm.

“So please, use great caution when you own a firearm,” he said.

The right to reasonable self-defense

Community members also submitted questions about being able to defend themselves if they are attacked.

Mylett said people are legally allowed to do so but every situation is different. The thing to remember is reasonableness. When investigating an incident, law enforcement will look at whether the force used was reasonable for the given situation, he said.

For example, when Mylett was with the Corpus Christi Police Department, a man shot and killed a teenager who had thrown toilet paper at his home. He said the force used in this situation was deemed unreasonable and the man was prosecuted.

Mylett has also responded to situations in which someone has broken into a home with the intention to commit a rape. In response, the home’s occupant shot and killed the intruder. He said in this case, the amount of force was seen as reasonable.

In the end, Mylett said, an individual will have to justify the amount of force they use in the situation in which they defended themselves.

Hate crimes and other incidents

When it comes to hate crimes and bias-related incidents, Mylett thinks things are happening in Bellevue but are just not being reported. He said his hope is that they are not happening on the scale of what is being reported nationally.

So far in 2020, BPD has received two reports of hate crimes or bias-related incidents involving the Asian and Asian American community.

According to state law, a hate crime is when someone maliciously and intentionally causes injury or property damage because of a person’s race, color, religion, ancestry, sexual orientation or any other protected class.

An example that was brought up in the town hall was what to do if someone spits or coughs on another person.

Mylett said the first thing someone should do if this happens to them is to wash and clean themselves as soon as possible because they don’t know what kind of diseases could be carried in the saliva.

It is important to think of the intention behind an act. For example, if someone is in a grocery store line and someone else coughs in their direction, Mylett said it probably was not on purpose and there is no need to do anything. But if the act was on purpose, he said to call the police.

Mylett added that he gets angry when he learns that such acts could be happening to anyone in the community and country.

The penalty of a hate crime conviction is up to five years in prison and a fine of up to $10,000.

Mylett said a bias-related incident is everything else not classified as a hate crime, which could include name calling, racial slurs, gestures and ugly looks.

To report an incident, Mylett encouraged people to call 911 if it is an immediate emergency and to submit a report online for incidents that have occurred in the past.

In the past, the BPD’s website online reporting portal focused on hate crimes in which someone was physically hurt. One person wrote in asking about cases in which someone experiences verbal abuse. Mylett said adjustments have been made to the department’s website so verbal abuse can be reported as well.

Kleinknecht added that if a person receives a threat against their person or property, it is a crime, but if the verbal harassment they receive is not a threat against thier person or property, people should report it anyway so law enforcement can monitor it.

Mylett said people can contact 911 by text but this option does not support languages that use different characters. There are translation services available if someone calls 911 and does not speak English. In addition, the BPD’s non-emergency line (425-577-5656) also has translation services available.

Mylett and Kleinknecht also acknowledged that incidents in ethnic communities are under reported historically, noting the different advisory councils Mylett formed when he became chief. These councils cover various races and religions as well as the LGBTQ+ communities with the goal of building a relationship between the groups and the police.

It is about establishing trust between law enforcement and these communities so people will report incidents if and when they happen.

“We cannot respond to those things that are occurring in the community if we are not aware of them,” Kleinknecht said.

Mylett said they promise to vigorously to investigate any claim of hate or bias and prosecute individuals to the highest degree.

‘We need each other’

Although the virtual town hall has ended, Mylett encouraged people to continue reaching out by email at or to call and leave a message at 425-452-7853. They will return all emails and voice messages, he said.

“Hate has no place in Bellevue. Period,” Mylett said.

He ended the meeting by acknowledging the difficult times people are experiencing. People are concerned about their health and the health of their loved ones. In addition, people are also mourning losses and facing financial stress.

“This is gonna end. It will end at some point and like any war, this will be life changing. But it will end,” Mylett said. “We will mourn our losses. We will clean up the debris, pick ourselves up and emerge stronger than before. Until then, we need each other. We need each other. We need each other. Until then, we need to continue to heed the advice and guidance that we are receiving from the medical experts and the leadership in this state.”