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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883
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Spokane bans high-pitch Mosquito devices at city businesses

UPDATED: Mon., June 22, 2020

A Mosquito, sound-emitting ultrasonic anti-loitering deterrent is placed near the corner of Howard and Sprague in Spokane in this photo from 2015. The Spokane City Council voted Monday to bar businesses from using such deivices. (DAN PELLE/Spokesman-Review)
A Mosquito, sound-emitting ultrasonic anti-loitering deterrent is placed near the corner of Howard and Sprague in Spokane in this photo from 2015. The Spokane City Council voted Monday to bar businesses from using such deivices. (DAN PELLE/Spokesman-Review)

The Spokane City Council narrowly voted Monday to bar city businesses from using devices that emit a sharp noise to deter people from loitering or congregating nearby.

Commonly referred to by the brand name Mosquito, the devices emit a high-pitch noise that disturbs a person within its range.

Long discussed and publicly debated, the Mosquito ban divided some downtown businesses with advocates for the homeless and young people.

It now lands on the desk of Mayor Nadine Woodward, who could choose to veto the bill.

Councilwoman Kate Burke, the bill’s sponsor, and its supporters argued that the devices are harmful to those who can hear their frequency. Others have noted that the devices impact innocent passersby, not just those loitering or engaging in illicit behavior.

“I can hear these devices and they actually physically make me sick to my stomach,” Burke said.

Councilwoman Candace Mumm, who supported the bill, lamented the impact the devices can have on young children and the disabled.

“They need to be protected, and they’re not even notified … this is not a recommended method to deter crime. There’s so many other ways to protect your property and make it encouraging or welcoming to all,” Mumm said.

But business organizations, including the Downtown Spokane Partnership, maintained that the device is one of the few tools that businesses have to protect their property from vandalism, loitering, and the accumulation of waste left by people sleeping at their doorstep.

Burke first introduced the legislation last year, but it has been repeatedly delayed, first due to concerns from business owners and groups, then due to legislative restrictions enacted by Gov. Jay Inslee during the coronavirus pandemic.

The bill defines a Mosquito as a device that “is intended to emit into public spaces painful or annoying high-frequency sound intended to be audible only to children and young adults.”

Businesses can still deploy the devices on their private property, but they can not impact the public right of way.

If a person or business has been notified they are violating the law and refuse to comply, a first offense would be cited as a civil infraction. A second offense would be prosecuted as a misdemeanor criminal charge and, if convicted, the violator would be forced to pay a fine of at least $500, although up to $250 of that fine can be suspended or deferred.

A second criminal conviction would be matched with a fine of at least $700, although up to $300 of that can be suspended or deferred.

Council members Michael Cathcart, Karen Stratton, and Betsy Wilkerson opposed the bill.

Cathcart said he might have voted differently following the opening of a new downtown police precinct later this year and the hiring of additional, community-oriented police officers.

“We need to make sure that our businesses downtown have the tools they need to ensure they can operate unimpeded,” Cathcart said.

Stratton opposed the bill on similar grounds.

“I can’t do that to them,” Stratton said of businesses. “I’m hoping that with the new precinct we won’t need this.”

Wilkerson proposed a sunset clause be added to the bill, allowing the council to reconsider the efficacy of the ban in the future, but her motion failed to pass.

Council President Beggs said it was unfortunate that supporting public safety downtown had been conflated with opposing the Mosquito ban.

“I reject that. That is a false dichotomy,” said Beggs, who voted in favor of the ban.

Several members, including those opposed to and in support of the bill, agreed the city needs to continue to have a conversation about public safety downtown.

“Getting rid of these things can start the conversation around how we’re going to move forward and create a safe environment for all of our community members,” Burke said.

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