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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883
News >  Spokane

Spokane City Council president stalls ‘sit-lie’ law

A proposed expansion of powers for Spokane police expected to decrease criminal behavior downtown has been partly blocked by City Council President Ben Stuckart after detractors said it would “criminalize homelessness.”

Stuckart said he agreed with the primary motivation of the proposals but believed they were too broadly written.

“We need to have an inviting city. It’s not just, ‘We don’t want “these people” down here,’ ” Stuckart said. “Laws alone aren’t going to solve this, but they are useful tools.”

Specifically, Stuckart disagreed with strengthening prohibitions against sitting or lying on public walkways, and he has held the ordinance back from a vote by the City Council until exceptions are added to protect homeless people.

He also made minor changes to rules criminalizing the possession of vehicle prowling tools and skateboarding on downtown sidewalks and will allow those laws to move forward for council consideration by the end of the month.

Spokane police Capt. Judi Carl and Sgt. Dan Waters, who oversee the downtown sector, told members of the city’s public safety committee last month the new rules are needed to effectively patrol the city’s core.

Carl said the “chronic offenders” know they can break existing sit-lie laws because the rules “have no teeth.” She said enforcement of current rules end up having a “water balloon effect”: Cops squeeze people in one part of town and they simply shift elsewhere.

Waters described mayhem.

“There’s been so much lawlessness downtown,” he said, mentioning how the recent closure of a downtown bar, Blue Spark, was blamed on a cluster of ill-behaved people. “They’re just emboldened.”

A visit to the infamous “planter” at the intersection of Wall Street and Spokane Falls Boulevard illustrates this characterization. Three separate visits over the last week showed more than a dozen people hanging out there, with a cluster of young men smoking marijuana.

But Rick Eichstaedt, director of Spokane’s Center for Justice, said laws are already in place for cracking down on drug use. He questioned the need for many of the new rules, saying they “criminalize homelessness.”

“It’s like using a sledgehammer when you need a scalpel,” he said.

In the last decade, many West Coast cities have attempted to create rules barring sitting or lying on public walks as a way to clear sidewalks of aggressive panhandling and drug use, notably in San Francisco and Portland.

Portland’s rule, created in 2007, was later ruled unconstitutional by a judge. A state Senate bill that would have allowed Oregon cities to create their own rules on sidewalk use died in committee in May.

According to the San Francisco Chronicle, the city’s sit-lie ordinance, which was approved by voters in 2010, has been predominantly enforced in the city’s storied Haight-Ashbury district, once the home of the Summer of Love but now a moneyed shopping district. This targeted enforcement has pushed people into the city’s Castro District, where community leaders are now considering removing benches.

In Spokane, the law would be in effect 21 hours a day – from 6 a.m. to 3 a.m. – up from 14 hours a day. It would also expand the boundaries of where the law could be enforced, and strike a previous section stating no citation could be given unless the offender was “notified by a law enforcement officer … and has been given a reasonable amount of time to comply.”

If approved, the ordinance would allow an officer to issue a misdemeanor citation immediately.

In her briefing paper on the sit-lie ordinance, Mary Muramatsu, the city attorney assigned to the Spokane Police Department, said the new rule would go a long way in combating criminal activity downtown.

“The problems,” she added, “apart from obstreperous, assaultive and other criminal behavior, include using the sidewalk as a campground, which creates unsanitary conditions that are off-putting and repulsive to other members of the public.”

At the public safety meeting, she said she spoke to Breean Beggs, a local civil rights attorney who has sued the city a number of times over police misbehavior.

These laws did not “cause him any particular heartburn,” he said.

But Beggs said he simply examined the ordinances for legal problems, which was not an endorsement.

“I was very pleased that she reached out to me and let me take a look at them,” Beggs said of Muramatsu. “I just did a legal analysis of them. I didn’t do a public policy analysis. … I’m skeptical (the new rules) will make a difference in the long run.”

Monique Cotton, the police department’s spokeswoman, said the rules would “help us to make people feel safe downtown and to make everyone enjoy downtown.”

Stuckart agreed, to a point, saying that the laws are “one piece of the puzzle.”

Regardless, he added, downtown is troubled.

“I’ve been making a point of walking through downtown. There’s some very aggressive behaviors, drug dealing specifically. I was panhandled aggressively four times in a row when I walked down the street the other day,” he said. “It made me uncomfortable, and I’ve lived in many big cities. I love big cities. But they were in my face.”

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