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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

‘Here’s the problem’: Body cameras show how police navigate Church at Planned Parenthood

Spokane Police officers discuss the Church at Planned Parenthood protests in Spokane last August. Body camera footage from police officers shows the chaos of the protests and police discussing amongst themselves the difficulties of enforcing the city’s noise ordinance. (YouTube channel North Idaho Exposed)

Spokane Police body camera footage, posted online Sunday, shows how officers interpreted the city’s laws against excessive noise as scores of protesters gathered outside Planned Parenthood last summer.

The footage was taken in August at the Church at Planned Parenthood, a regular congregation of anti-abortion activists outside the health care facility who pray, sing songs, and demonstrate against the nonprofit on Indiana Avenue.

In addition to offering a glimpse into how police interpreted – and declined to enforce – city noise laws at the scene, the footage includes an officer debating the physical attractiveness of the women at the Church at Planned Parenthood in comparison to counter protesters.

The video’s release comes as the City Council prepares to consider a new city law that would mirror existing protections in state law for health clinics.

The law, sponsored by Councilwoman Lori Kinnear, is a response to the ongoing Church at Planned Parenthood events. The congregants believe their protest is protected by the First Amendment. The nonprofit’s representatives and supporters believe the protests are disruptive and routinely violate state and city law.

Since the August protests depicted in the video, Spokane Police Chief Craig Meidl said the department has had a “reset” and warned The Church at Planned Parenthood and counter protesters that the department will actively enforce the city’s noise ordinance.

“We will enforce if there is a violation and we are not going to pick one side over the other side,” Meidl told The Spokesman-Review on Monday.

The body camera video shows how officers assigned to the protest attempted to separate opposing sides to minimize conflict. It also demonstrates how officers applied the advice of the city’s legal department to the situation.

“We might want to arm ourselves with knowledge of the city noise ordinances … got asked several times today about that,” an officer is heard saying.

Spokane Police Lt. Dave Overhoff replies that the issue was discussed with City Attorney Mary Muramatsu.

“Here’s the problem: Do you know anybody that has enforced it in the Spokane Police Department? Nor has she,” Overhoff says.

If the city started to actually enforce its noise ordinance, it would have to do public service announcements first “unless it’s a law that we consistently and always have enforced,” Overhoff explains.

“Here’s the problem: are we just going to do (enforce) it for this event? Are we going to do it for any other event?” Overhoff asks rhetorically.

Overhoff speaks about applying the law consistently, and argues if “you drive through (Gonzaga University) with your windows down and you can probably have 25 or 30 noise ordinance violations. When are you going to enforce it?”

After watching the video on Monday, Kinnear disagrees with the officers’ logic.

“I can’t help but think we either misunderstood (the city attorney) or were not really paying close attention. It seems unreal that we should have an ordinance and not be enforcing it,” Kinnear said.

The city’s noise ordinance is meant to be enforced on the basis of a complaint, she said. She disagrees with the example of patrolling Gonzaga’s campus in search of a violation, because officers should be enforcing the ordinance when they receive a complaint from an aggrieved person, like a resident whose neighbor is hosting a 2 a.m. Tuesday night punk rock show in an otherwise quiet neighborhood.

Paul Dillon, a spokesman for Planned Parenthood of Greater Washington and Idaho, called the discussion “absolutely ridiculous.”

“It’s very twisted logic to equate a Gonzaga house party or somebody driving their car bumping their stereo to noise outside a health care facility when the law is very clear about what constitutes disruption and interference,” Dillon said.

The footage was posted to the right-wing YouTube channel North Idaho Exposed. The video was edited down from 40 hours of police body camera footage received through a public records request filed by Idaho resident Casey Whalen, according to its description.

New approach

The police department has actively enforced the city noise ordinance since September, according to Meidl.

Under the city’s law, a warning must be given before a citation is issued. In response to complaints, Meidl said warnings have been given at Church of Planned Parenthood events, but the violations have been remedied before they rise to the level of a citation. The city’s legal team has trained the police department’s tactical team on enforcement and the line between what is and isn’t a violation of the law, Meidl said.

“I have been assured by everyone who is there that they have been following the law,” Meidl said.

The department now assigns a captain to the Church at Planned Parenthood, with the specific task of determining whether any violations occur. A captain has twice entered the clinic to assess the level of interference posed by the protests, but found the noise did not meet the threshold.

“I’m told you can still even carry on a conversation,” Meidl said.

A state law that specifically protects health care facilities from disruption is fairly vague, banning noise that “unreasonably disturbs the peace within the facility.” Meidl’s interpretation of the law is that the noise would constitute interference if it forced a provider and patient to “change what we’re doing because the noise is having an impact on our ability to converse,” including by moving to a different room inside the clinic.

Dillon said the protests continue to be disruptive, and patients have had to be moved to different exam rooms.

Meidl said enforcing the law is a challenge and compared it to reckless driving, a law that forces officers to make a judgment call.

Ken Peters, pastor of Covenant Church and a leader of the Church at Planned Parenthood, could not immediately be reached for comment on Monday but told The Spokesman-Review earlier this month he does not object to complying with the city’s noise ordinance.

“We are not there to disrupt them, we are there to call on God and worship and pray for the end of abortion,” Peters said.

‘Church Girls’

As police arrive to the protest on Aug. 21, the body camera of Senior Police Officer Scott Hice records his conversation.

“Usually the better looking girls are on the other side,” Hice is heard saying.

“Church Girls?” another person asks.

“Yeah, church girls are a little cleaner, at least,” Hice says.

After a brief pause, Hice says “that’s on that body cam already. I’m already in trouble. I’ve been here two minutes. Nice.”

Meidl said he has directed his chain of command to remind officers to be cognizant that their body cameras are on. While he said he’s “not justifying the behavior,” it is “not specifically a violation” of department policy and “when they’re out there for four or five hours, they’re going to have conversations that are not directly with the community.”

Hice has been with the department since 2014.

“I’m a little struck by the lack of self-editing by some of the officers. Not a criticism, just kind of wonderment, I guess. I don’t know if they just forget or they don’t care, I’m not going to speculate,” Kinnear said.

Dillon called Hice’s comments “very demeaning toward women and offensive.”

“Their job is to keep us safe and it’s very clear that this is a game and that is scary. It should be a wake up call to the community,” Dillon said.