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Shawn Vestal: The laws are the laws, but they don’t enforce themselves

Shahram Hadian, right, pastor at Truth in Love Ministries, gestures during a protest rally and church service led by The Church at Planned Parenthood on May 19. A large crowd, including former state Rep. Matt Shea, center, listens at Planned Parenthood’s offices at 123 East Indiana.  (TYLER TJOMSLAND)

The mayor says that the City Council’s resolution calling on the city to not waste its resources enforcing the abortion laws of other states is beside the point.

A nonissue for the city.

But given the ideas floating about the anti-abortion policy world – including the very real possibility that red states will attempt to reach across state lines in various ways – such scenarios are not at all theoretical.

The idea that Idaho might try put legal shackles on an Idahoan trying to obtain an abortion across state lines, or try to penalize a provider in Washington, is not hard to imagine.

Mayor Nadine Woodward has a hard time imagining it, though. Here’s what she said about the council’s nonbinding resolution calling on the city to refuse to deploy resources to investigate abortion providers or anyone seeking an abortion here: “Our laws are our Washington state laws, which allow for abortion services. That’s not going to change at all.”

True enough. The question, though, is whether the leaders of the city and the police department are committed to standing up for those laws. Whether, in a specific case where an agency from Idaho sought some form of assistance, the police department would enforce and defend our laws with rigor – or whether it might operate in a less-than-enthusiastic matter with regard Washington’s abortion rights.

There is reason to wonder. All you have to do is consider the department’s lackadaisical response to the aggressive harassment outside Planned Parenthood not that long ago.

These protests from 2018 to 2020, conducted by the so-called Church at Planned Parenthood and often including a who’s who of regional and national far-right figures, were held directly outside the health care facility, interfering with patient access and disrupting patient care inside.

Protesters, sometimes by the hundreds, blocked the sidewalks and stood in the flower beds, just feet from the entrance. They walked back and forth in front of the parking lot entrances – peering in at those driving in.

They amplified their music, speeches and prayers obnoxiously with speakers that made their protests audible inside the examination rooms and out in the neighborhood.

I stood inside one of those rooms at a protest and could clearly hear the amplified words being spoken outside. I was later told by an officer that you could not hear the protests inside.

The ones I had just heard, I mean.

Clinic officials and neighbors complained repeatedly that the protests violated city noise ordinances. The protests also, rather obviously, violated a state law that prohibits interference with access to health services.

A very simple balancing of interests – the free-speech and assembly rights of the protesters and the right of patients to not be harassed while receiving treatment – would have been easy to achieve: have protesters move across the street, away from entrances, and require them to limit their noise.

Such “place, manner and time” restrictions on public protests are employed all the time.

Instead, the police department did basically nothing for months and months, in the face of continual, valid complaints from Planned Parenthood. Six or eight SPD SUVs would show up at each TCAPP protest and the officers would sit there gathering overtime. In one incident captured on body camera, officers made crude, dumb comments about women involved in counterprotests.

The department went to extraordinary lengths to claim that the obviously disruptive – intentionally disruptive – protests were not disruptive. Officials denied the noise was “that bad” or said it didn’t last very long. They said protesters turned the noise down when asked.

They said the counterprotesters across the street were actually louder, or that cars honking their horns were more disruptive.

They repeatedly referred to the First Amendment rights of the protesters, as if there were no other rights in question. One neighbor who filed a complaint said he was told by the police that the city didn’t even have a noise ordinance.

The continuous complaints from clinic officials were shrugged off or denied, as were their attempts to persuade police with their own noise meter readings.

Twice, when I was asking Chief Craig Meidl questions about the department’s reasoning on the matter in 2019, he responded by sending me a screenshot of a Facebook post critical of police that a Planned Parenthood official had liked.

Eventually, Planned Parenthood sued and a judge rapidly implemented the obvious solution: TCAPP could continue to protest, of course, but had to move across the street and do so only after the clinic had closed and patients were gone.

TCAPP immediately began violating the order.

Could you blame them? Given the message they’d received about the city’s commitment to enforcing the law?

That was less than two years ago. The laws were on the books. The words were on paper. But laws don’t enforce themselves.

It takes commitment and leadership – within the department or above it.

And if the mayor can’t say she committed, she’s not.

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