A proposal would bring a screeching halt to high-pitched noise emitters used to deter loitering around downtown businesses.
Whether the machines are a necessary deterrent or a form of discrimination may be in the ear of the beholder.
The Spokane City Council is scheduled to vote on a law on Monday that would ban devices that emit a disruptive sound designed to discourage people from congregating outside businesses.
Drafted by City Councilwoman Kate Burke, the proposal is questioned by downtown businesses that utilize the devices. But Burke believes the noise machines, which target young and homeless people downtown, are innately discriminatory.
“I feel like we really need to figure out how we’re going to move forward. Moving forward, to me, is not pushing part of our community back or away from us,” Burke said.
But some businesses have been “overrun by negative activity” associated with loitering, according to Downtown Spokane Partnership President and CEO Mark Richard.
“There are times when as a last resort these devices are needed to deter negative activity outside their properties,” Richard said.
Moving Sound Technologies, which produces the Mosquito device, says it emits a high-frequency noise audible to people between 13 and 25 years old. A newer version of the device has a setting that can be heard by people of all ages.
Arguing that they contradict “our goal to create a vibrant and welcoming city,” the legislation outright bans the use of any device “intended to emit into public spaces painful or annoying high-frequency sound intended to be audible only to children and young adults.”
Although the proposal uses the term “Mosquito,” which is a specific brand, it would apply to any type of similar device.
The first violation of the ordinance would result in a civil infraction, but the second violation would be cited as a misdemeanor if it occurs within a year of the first.
When she was in high school, Burke would hear the noise emitters while walking downtown.
“It was always in the back of my head: What are those things. Why are they here?” Burke said.
She argues that the devices negatively impact not just young people and the homeless, but families walking by with their children, high school students walking to class and employees of downtown businesses.
With the installation of such devices, Burke asks, “What kind of a downtown are we creating?”
“How do we want to solve this problem? Do we want to push people out of these areas, or do we want to invest in them?” Burke asked.
Young people have reported finding the machines “extremely annoying” or, at times, anxiety-inducing, according to Bridget Cannon, youth services director for Volunteers of America, which operates the Crosswalk Teen Shelter for homeless youth.
Young people have long felt unwelcome downtown, she noted, and not just due to noise-emitting machines. Outreach teams dispatched to connect young people to services have a harder time finding them because “literally, they’ve scattered,” Cannon said.
“It doesn’t help us help them, because we can’t contact them,” Cannon said. “It’s no longer that visible problem downtown, but it’s still a problem, and now it’s just become invisible or not as visible. That doesn’t mean we’ve solved it, that just means we’ve moved it.”
Councilwoman Lori Kinnear, whose district encompasses downtown, said her legislative assistant played the noises online. She said “they were painful.” But Kinnear suggested holding off on a ban for now, “as much as I don’t want to see them.”
“It seems a little draconian to ban it without an alternative,” Kinnear said. “Before we take something out, we need to offer a replacement.”
City Council President Ben Stuckart said, as of Friday, he plans to support the ordinance.
The use of such devices has created debate not just in Spokane, but around the world. In 2010, the Council of Europe recommended prohibiting the use of Mosquito devices.
“This is neither politically acceptable nor consistent with the safeguard of fundamental human rights which the use of ‘Mosquito’ devices clearly infringes,” the council found.
But Richard noted that only a handful of businesses in Spokane employ the noise devices, and they’re used as a “last resort” after they have implemented safety measures like hiring security, installing cameras and lighting, and locking their buildings.
The devices are typically only used in the evening hours, so the notion that they’re deterring tourists is a fallacy, Richard said.
“We do definitely have concerns. I don’t think (Burke) really appreciates the reality of the situation,” he said.
NAI Black manages three properties in downtown Spokane and has employed noise-emitting devices specifically targeting young people and homeless individuals who congregate around them, said Thomas Hix, the company’s vice president of commercial property management.
“We have tenants who are concerned about the homeless situation and the problems they cause, and their concerns about how walking on the street, having to walk by them, sleeping in the doorways,” Hix said.
Hix said NAI Black has had tenants threaten to leave.
“These Mosquitoes don’t hurt anybody,” Hix stressed. “We have companies that start work at 5 a.m., 6 a.m., and they were not comfortable with these people just hanging around and walking by them.”
Richard argues that the legislation does not target the heart of the problem.
“We’d rather the council focus on trying to solve some of these problems and eliminate the criminal and nuisance activity that are impacting our downtown business core,” Richard said.
For areas like the former City Hall, a portion of which has been vacant since the Olive Garden restaurant left, Richard said the devices have had a tangible effect.
“They’re not completely 100% foolproof, but I think it’s definitely helped,” Richard said.
Mayor David Condon did not say whether he would look to veto the ordinance if it passes, but expressed concern about the law being a “slippery slope” toward taking away other tools businesses employ to secure their properties. He has asked for a legal review of the proposal.
“People have to be able to protect their private property,” Condon said.
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