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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

When enforcement falls short of expectations, Spokane City Council repeats laws

Shahram Hadian, right, Pastor at Truth and Love Ministries during protest rally and church service led by The Church at Planned Parenthood as a large crowd including former Washington State Rep. Matt Shea (R), center, listens on Tuesday, May 19, 2020, at Planned Parenthood's offices at 123 East Indiana in Spokane. (TYLER TJOMSLAND)

As its members sought answers to community outcry, the Spokane City Council rewrote or restated existing laws that it believes are not being adequately enforced on a few notable occasions this year.

It’s an approach the council has taken in an effort to rein in anti-abortion demonstrations outside Planned Parenthood, militias lining downtown streets during protests, and needles discarded in city parks.

Its efficacy remains to be seen.

In February, the council passed a city law sponsored by Councilwoman Lori Kinnear that essentially restated the state limits on activities that interfere with health care facilities.

The city law was a response to allegations by Planned Parenthood – and City Council members – that Washington law was not being enforced when religious anti-abortion demonstrators gathered outside its clinic for routine, amplified protests.

In November, Council President Breen Beggs adopted a resolution imploring city police to enforce a century-old state law prohibiting militias from gathering in city streets. Though the resolution was nonbinding, Beggs has floated the idea of codifying the state law into actual city law to allow it to be prosecuted in municipal court.

It was the council’s answer to criticism of how Spokane Police addressed the militias that gathered in downtown Spokane during protests against racial injustice and the death of George Floyd in May and June.

Now, the council will consider a new proposal that serves several purposes, among them restating that the use or possession of drug paraphernalia near a city park is illegal – an activity already banned under state and city law.

It’s an answer to neighborhood concerns about discarded needles and mess left behind by the needle exchange and meal deliveries regularly hosted in Coeur d’Alene Park.

In each case, elected officials have grasped for stricter enforcement of existing rules and laws. But is their approach effective?

Whether a crime is written into state or city law doesn’t affect how Spokane Police respond to it, Spokane Police Chief Craig Meidl said in a statement to The Spokesman-Review.

“Passing a local ordinance already codified in (state law) does not change the necessity to prioritize calls based on call load, nor does it change the elements needed to prove a violation of law occurred, nor change the resources available to respond to a call,” Meidl said.

Even after adopting the city law to curtail the noise of protests at Planned Parenthood, Kinnear feels it’s not being enforced. The city and police officials have disagreed, remaining adamant that code enforcement officers have been at the site and monitoring noise levels.

Although she stopped short of pointing a finger at the police department, Kinnear said, “I don’t feel that we’re getting the enforcement that was intended, and I don’t know why. I’ve asked, I just feel like we’re not there yet.”

Beggs said Planned Parenthood recently won a temporary restraining order in Spokane Superior Court that set limits on the hours and location of protests outside Planned Parenthood.

“It hasn’t achieved the goal, (but) is it better? I think Planned Parenthood has a better chance in court now because of it,” Beggs said.

He hopes that, by raising the existence of the state law regarding militias, it will be enforced the next time it’s necessary.

In advance of the council’s vote earlier this month, Meidl said he was unaware of any city enforcing the militia law and worried about infringing on constitutional rights.

The parks ordinance, slated for a vote on Monday, would codify a requirement that hosts of large events in city parks get a permit from the Parks Department first. The proposal offers accountability, but doesn’t infringe on rights, Kinnear argued.

“It’s not asking you to stop, it’s saying clean up after yourself,” Kinnear said.

In addition to meal handouts, the law was a response to large church services being held in Corbin Park on Sunday mornings. It won’t interfere with first amendment rights, she stressed.

“If you want to have a church service, you don’t need to amplify it to the entire neighborhood,” Kinnear said, but, “if 50 of you … are going to gather and protest mask wearing, that’s your right under the constitution.”

Kinnear acknowledges that it’s already illegal, in city and state law, to distribute or use drug paraphernalia near a city park. But restating it, along with a number of other park rules, into one section of city law will provide clarity, she argues.

Councilman Michael Cathcart, who supports Kinnear’s effort, agrees with her logic and says the approach helps elucidate how these laws will be enforced at the local level, adding that it allows officers “to engage with somebody who might need some sort of assistance.”

“Even if it’s not always enforced, it’s certainly an important tool or set of tools to enable an officer to do a better job,” Cathcart said.

In the latest draft of Kinnear’s proposal, the section on drug paraphernalia does not fully rearticulate the existing city law, but references it and adds that violators could be banned from one or more city parks for up to a year.

“I think that this definitely accomplished the intent that we’re looking for,” city attorney Mary Muramatsu, who’s worked with Kinnear on the proposal, told the City Council on Monday.

Still, enforcement of misdemeanors and smaller infractions often comes down to a matter of resources.

“That’s the problem,” Beggs said. “We have it in everything, whether it’s towing motorhomes and abandoned cars, to shoveling the snow on sidewalks – we never seem to have enough resources to enforce it to people’s satisfaction.”

Meidl noted the department can’t respond to every call it receives.

“SPD prioritizes calls based on the threat to the community, with crimes of violence having the top priority,” Meidl said.

Beggs said there are neighborhood residents dealing with quality-of-life issues “who are just out of their minds, perhaps legitimately so, saying, ‘Somebody do something.’ ” Although they’ve debated the details, Beggs said Kinnear simply “wants to be responsive and say. ‘Let’s do something.’ ”