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Spokane City Council to vote on revised ban on high-pitched devices designed to drive away homeless

Almost a dozen homeless people take shelter under the porch of a small business in downtown Spokane on Oct. 24. (Jesse Tinsley / The Spokesman-Review)
Almost a dozen homeless people take shelter under the porch of a small business in downtown Spokane on Oct. 24. (Jesse Tinsley / The Spokesman-Review)

A proposal to ban devices that emit a shrill tone targeted at disrupting the young and homeless near downtown businesses is back on the Spokane City Council’s desk.

After minor revisions, the council will vote Monday on a bill drafted by Councilwoman Kate Burke that would outlaw the use of the Mosquito, which emits a high-pitched noise meant to deter loitering and unsavory behavior.

Burke introduced the bill in December, arguing that the piercing tones used by some downtown property owners are not only a harsh punishment to the young and homeless but also unwelcoming to everyone in Spokane.

“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 last month.

The legislation refers by name to the Mosquito, a device manufactured by Moving Sound Technologies that aims to cause discomfort to people between 13 and 25 years old. But the legislation would apply to any brand of device with the same use and purpose.

Burke’s original bill was tabled amid concerns about the severity of penalties for those who violated the ban, which would have been as high as 90 days in jail or a $1,000 fine in some instances.

Councilwoman Lori Kinnear spearheaded two key revisions to the original proposal. Burke said last week that she will accept Kinnear’s amendments.

First, the new version eliminates the potential for jail time until a third offense within a year. Under the new bill, first and second offenses would be cited as civil infractions. A third within a year would result in a misdemeanor charge. Burke’s original proposal would have made a second offense a misdemeanor.

Kinnear’s version also tweaks the bill’s language to allow the use of the devices as long as their emissions do not leak onto public property. That would, theoretically, allow a business with a large entryway the ability to utilize the device on its own property.

“It’s not OK to put things out in the public realm that affect everybody,” Kinnear said. “What about people who are minding their own business and behaving?”

The councilwoman believes Mayor Nadine Woodward’s plans to open a new police precinct downtown should be given a chance to be proven effective at mitigating the behaviors downtown businesses find objectionable – without Mosquitoes in place. Kinnear, who supports Woodward’s downtown policing plans, believes community policing may be the answer to businesses’ concerns, not high-pitched noises.

“If you have (community policing), and people are using Mosquitoes, it’s a variable that will interfere with the end result,” Kinnear said.

Kinnear’s adjustments are not enough to assuage the concerns of the Downtown Spokane Partnership and its president and CEO, Mark Richard, who argues the bill has been rushed and council members have not sought adequate input from the business community.

The devices are used to deter behavior such as camping and sleeping in alcoves, as well as public consumption and drugs, according to Richard, who said the legislation is a “step backwards.”

“We have asked for the council to work on the solutions instead of taking away one of the few tools property owners have left to try to disperse illegal activity, when oftentimes you can’t get a response from law enforcement,” Richard said.

Richard doesn’t believe it’s right to ban the use of the devices before a downtown precinct is opened, a process that could take several more months. Implementing a community policing model also will take time, he noted.

Kinnear said Friday she is willing to tweak the bill further to delay its implementation until the downtown precinct is open and a community policing model is implemented. She also is willing to enact the ban on a pilot basis.

The Downtown Spokane Partnership will argue Monday that the devices do not create a health hazard. He also noted that the partnership has not heard complaints about their use.

“I’d like to see the volume of (complaints) before we would ever agree that this is a problem,” Richard said.

On Thursday, city spokeswoman Marlene Feist said Woodward’s office was awaiting an updated version of the ordinance before commenting on the issue.

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