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Spokane City Council urges Woodward to relocate police precinct at former East Side Library

A moving crew moves furniture into the former East Side Library in Spokane on Thursday, June 30, 2022. The building became a police precinct this month.  (Greg Mason/The Spokesman-Review)
A moving crew moves furniture into the former East Side Library in Spokane on Thursday, June 30, 2022. The building became a police precinct this month. (Greg Mason/The Spokesman-Review)

Just over a week after Mayor Nadine Woodward opened a new police precinct at the former East Side Library, the Spokane City Council is calling on the city administration to move the precinct somewhere else.

Council members approved a nonbinding resolution Monday calling to relocate the police building to somewhere along or within two blocks of East Sprague Avenue, between the Hamilton Street overpass and Havana Street. The resolution requests opening that precinct no later than Jan. 1, 2023.

The resolution is nonbinding, meaning the city administration is not obligated to carry out the council’s request. It was sponsored by Council President Breean Beggs, who picked that area of Sprague Avenue based on the rate of violent crime events in that corridor, he said.

Beggs said the resolution is not just a call to put it somewhere other than the former library.

“It is meant to be putting it proactively to where we think people want it,” Beggs said.

The legislation was introduced through committee in late June, just a few days before Woodward moved forward with the precinct at the former library.

Her decision was met with sharp criticism from several council members given that, when she announced her proposal in May to staff the property as a police precinct, Woodward said the City Council would have the final say in the building’s use.

Seven officers – five on site and two working out of COPS shops, said police Chief Craig Meidl – are now assigned to the former East Side Library, located at Stone Street and Sixth Avenue East.

As proposed by the mayor, the building will serve as a neighborhood policing location similar to the Spokane Police Department’s downtown precinct, with officers and on-site behavioral health resources.

“If we’re going to have a mental health clinic down there, which is needed, make it a mental health clinic,” Councilwoman Betsy Wilkerson said. “Don’t just give them a room. They need the whole building.”

The 6,000-square-foot building was vacated last fall when the Spokane Public Library opened the Liberty Park branch nearby. Prior to moving into the former library, the police department had those officers stationed on the second floor of a nunnery at St. Ann Catholic Church.

While city officials agree on the need for a new precinct, there’s discord with the location relative to Interstate 90 – particularly whether it should be north of the freeway or south.

The council voted 4-2 on Monday, with council members Michael Cathcart and Jonathan Bingle opposed. Councilman Zack Zappone was absent due to a previously arranged service trip.

“Money doesn’t grow on trees, and we don’t have any money,” Cathcart said. “I don’t know how we’re going to buy a building on Sprague to put a police precinct.”

Bingle said the majority of residents he’s heard from on the issue prefer a precinct at the library site.

The city already had gone through a community outreach process to determine the former library’s use, including a city-commissioned ThoughtExchange survey that saw participation from more than 600 people. A precinct was one of the more popular concepts, according to the results.

A request for comment from Woodward was not returned.

Wilkerson, who has repeatedly claimed the city administration has not thoroughly talked through the site’s potential with members of the East Central Neighborhood, said the ThoughtExchange survey was open to anyone.

“We had all of this outside energy telling us what was best for East Central from all over the city,” she said. “We don’t know if those are truly the voices of East Central or not.”

In addition to the Sprague Avenue precinct measure, council members approved a separate resolution to begin exploring lease options for the former library.

The resolution asks the administration to publish requests for information that interested tenants could follow to submit their proposals for the building. A community open house to showcase the received proposals would follow.

Wilkerson wants to see a process similar to what was involved with the creation of the police department’s downtown precinct, saying anything short of that is “a disservice to our citizens.”

“When the downtown precinct was sited, if you all remember, there was significant community engagement,” Wilkerson said. “There was a process. People had the opportunity to come down here and speak. There was actually a budget presented to us. It wasn’t done, I felt like, in the dark of night.

“I feel like we cannot cherry-pick which locations get to have a process and which locations don’t,” she said. “There has to be consistency.”

Cathcart and Bingle opposed the resolution, as Cathcart said the city went through six months of community outreach before the precinct coalesced.

“I think we have to have police protection in that neighborhood, and that’s what people are demanding,” he said. “They are demanding public safety.”

Woodward has the authority as mayor to make operational decisions with city-owned buildings without council approval.

Another bill scheduled for a vote next week, however, proposes to take away that power specifically when it comes to police precincts and a few other facilities.

The legislation would amend the city code with how the city administration goes about locating “essential city facilities,” which the bill defines as police precincts or offices, fire stations, utility facilities and community centers.

As proposed by the legislation, operations at such facilities would not be able to start without council approval.

In addition, the city administration would first have to publish alternate locations, conduct at least one community meeting and solicit written comment from neighborhood council members in the affected area. The council’s Equity Subcommittee, an advisory board, also would review any proposals.

The bill explicitly outlines qualifying criteria for suitable police precinct locations. Several concern location: The site would have to be near the main street of a neighborhood district, within a documented cluster of criminal activities and within a commercial zone with high visibility of police patrols.

Finally, the ordinance includes explicit language that would give Spokane residents the legal ability to seek an injunction if they believe the city failed to comply with these regulations. An injunction through the Spokane County Superior Court would halt services at the affected facility until compliance is achieved.

As proposed, this legal authority would not apply to facilities that provided services before June 25.

Police started moving into the former library June 30.

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