Worshippers regularly gather outside Planned Parenthood on Indiana Avenue and yearn to be heard by God, hoping their prayers for an end to abortion will be answered.
But the health care provider says its staff and patients hear the congregation, too, and alleges the hourlong sessions of amplified songs and prayers violate city and state laws against intrusive noise.
The Spokane Police Department said it was at the scene Tuesday of the monthly demonstration with city code enforcement officers and found no violations of city and state laws regarding noise.
It was yet another demonstration that left Planned Parenthood administrators frustrated.
Planned Parenthood has long claimed the city’s police department does not enforce laws against excessive noise and has failed to apply protections in state law for health care facilities.
On Tuesday, the nonprofit took that complaint a step further, including it as a component of legal action against The Church at Planned Parenthood, commonly referred to by its members as TCAPP. The health care provider has asked the court to step in and prohibit church members from gathering on the small strip of public land outside its facility on Indiana Avenue.
Spokane City Councilwoman Lori Kinnear successfully spearheaded a city law to protect health care facilities from excessive noise earlier this year. Her bill did not create new protections or regulations, but codified those that already exist in state law.
The city law, Kinnear had hoped, would give city police another tool to enforce limits on The Church at Planned Parenthood’s activities and further protect any health care provider in the city of Spokane.
But more than three months later, Kinnear said Wednesday the city’s law on noise still is not being enforced.
The ordinance was carefully crafted and adjusted after consultation with the city’s legal department to ensure it is enforceable, the councilwoman said.
“So, where’s the disconnect? I don’t think the disconnect is with the ordinance itself. I think the disconnect is with the actual enforcement,” Kinnear said. “Either code (enforcement officials) or police just don’t understand how to enforce it. We were so thorough with that ordinance. I don’t know what else could have been done differently.”
On Tuesday, about 200 church members gathered to demonstrate outside the facility, which offers a wide array of health care services beyond abortion, including testing for sexually transmitted diseases and birth control.
Police did not enter the Planned Parenthood facility to gauge sound levels on Tuesday night, according to Paul Dillon, a spokesperson for Planned Parenthood of Greater Washington and North Idaho.
Dillon said Planned Parenthood takes its own decibel level reading and routinely measures sustained noise beyond the allowable legal limit, including on Tuesday night, but Spokane police said the department “has responded to every complaint about the noise and determined that there was not a violation of the noise ordinance.”
The decibel limits set by state law vary depending on how sustained the noise is. It also matters where the noise is emanating from and who is hearing it – limits are different, for example, in a residential neighborhood or in an industrial zone.
Separately, city and state laws prohibit anyone from “making noise that unreasonably disturbs the peace within” a health care facility.
On Tuesday night, and during previous TCAPP demonstrations, Dillon said Planned Parenthood captured decibel readings that were consistently in the 70s and 80s, which would be a violation of city and state noise law. The noise of a vacuum cleaner 10 feet away would be about 75 decibels, according to the Federal Aviation Administration.
“We’re there, we’re monitoring the situation, we’re listening to noise levels, we’re taking complaints, and code enforcement officers are using the decibel meters,” said police department spokesperson Julie Humphreys. “We’re actively enforcing what we’re asked to.”
Humphreys said there is officer body camera footage demonstrating that there was no violation of the noise ordinance on Tuesday.
Planned Parenthood reached out to Spokane police several weeks ago for clarity on its approach to enforcement, but never heard back, Dillon said. He said two city code enforcement officers were walking around the property on Tuesday, but did not enter the building.
“We had no idea that was going to happen, that was not communicated to us when we reached out to find out what exactly the plans were for training officers,” Dillon said.
Code enforcement officers were assigned to the protest for the first time Tuesday. Capt. Dave Singley told The Spokesman-Review in May that Spokane police lacked the proper training to enforce the city’s noise ordinance, but Humphreys clarified on Wednesday that it only lacks training on how to use decibel meters – hence the presence of code enforcement officers on Tuesday.
There remains a lack of clarity on whether police will proactively enforce the noise ordinance.
Humphreys stressed that a complaint must be made for officers to enforce the noise ordinance. Although there is no such requirement explicitly written into the law, Humphreys said it is the advice of the city’s legal department. There were no complaints made on Tuesday night, Humphreys added.
The police department has “never” proactively enforced the noise ordinance, Humphreys said.
But despite not receiving a complaint, law enforcement was on scene and actively monitoring for a noise violation on Tuesday.
Dillon said Planned Parenthood did not make a formal noise complaint Tuesday because when he spoke to an officer, he was told code enforcement officers already were taking readings.
In general, a noise complaint can be filed through Crime Check, Humphreys said. If it’s regarding an active event, such as a protest, the complaint can be relayed to an officer on scene and investigated.
Police fielded a complaint at last month’s TCAPP demonstration and forwarded it to the city prosecutor’s office for review, but it was determined there was no probable cause for a violation, Humphreys said.
Ken Peters, a pastor at Covenant Church and leader of TCAPP, told worshippers on Tuesday that they could adjust to city noise limits.
“They can try to keep us quiet with the sound ordinance, but they can’t stop us. So if we got to sing quiet, we’ll sing quiet. But we’re not going to stop singing. We’re not going to stop praising. We’re not going to stop,” Peters said.
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