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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Being in Spokane parks after hours made an arrestable offense

The Strawberry Moon rises behind the U.S. Pavilion in Riverfront Park in June 2021.  (COLIN MULVANY/THE SPOKESMAN-REVIEW)

The Spokane City Council voted 4-3 Monday to make it an arrestable offense to be in Spokane parks between 11 p.m. and 5 a.m., or between midnight and 5 a.m. in Riverfront Park.

Council President Breean Beggs and councilmembers Betsy Wilkerson and Zack Zappone voted against the ordinance Monday night, raising concerns that the law could be used to criminalize people not causing harm and saying it wouldn’t improve public safety.

An alternative proposal led by Beggs and supported by Zappone and Wilkerson would have required a warning before making arrests and would have limited arrests to groups of five or more, as law enforcement officials have stated that large groups are responsible for a spike in violent overnight activity.

The version sponsored by Councilwoman Karen Stratton and Councilmen Jonathan Bingle and Michael Cathcart passed with the tiebreaking vote of Councilwoman Lori Kinnear. Their ordinance had few restrictions on making arrests, though a last-minute amendment did decrease the hours of enforcement.

It was already against city law to be in Riverfront Park between midnight and 6 a.m., and from 10 p.m. to 6 a.m. for all other city parks, but violating the rule has been a civil infraction with no threat of jail time since 2018. Law enforcement has not issued any tickets for being in the parks after hours.

Police and Spokane Park Board officials have requested that the City Council increase the penalty to a misdemeanor, providing officers with the authority to arrest violators. They argued it was necessary to mitigate a rash of vandalism and violent crimes recently, including over $160,000 in damage to park property over six months.

“We need to gain control of the parks,” police Cpt. Thomas Hendren told the City Council in early May.

City law on being in the parks after hours prior to 2018 is murky. While one chapter of city code did make violating park rules a gross misdemeanor, a separate chapter simultaneously made violations a civil infraction.

It is difficult to tell how law enforcement interpreted city law prior to 2018. In 2016 and 2017, there were neither any arrests nor tickets made in city parks for violating the hours of closure, according to Spokane Police Department spokeswoman Julie Humphreys.

“Historically, being in the parks after hours was not a violation we had to take enforcement action around,” Humphreys said.

Humphreys argued that the increase in violent crime in the parks made the threat of arrest a necessary deterrent. There were three shootings resulting in an injury in 2022, Hendren has noted, including one fatality.

On Monday afternoon, the Spokane Police Department issued a press release stating that there had been a gunshot Saturday morning as a result of a gathering in Franklin Park. The release alleged that many of those gathered were underage and uncooperative with police. A shell casing was reportedly found, but no victim was identified.

In the press release, the department stated that the incident was an example of why the threat of arrest was necessary to secure parks after hours.

Zappone questioned whether shootings and other violent incidents were actually on the rise, pointing to data that showed a spate of reported shootings in 2022 but a decrease between 2017 and 2021. There were 30 reported shootings in 2017, 48 in 2022 and 15 so far in 2023.

Though Hendren has said in most cases officers would use discretion and provide warnings, many have expressed concerns that the law’s subjective enforcement could be used to discriminate.

KJ January, a Black woman, recalled once playing basketball in the park after hours with her friends. As they were about to leave, she said they were stopped by an officer who aggressively questioned whether they were engaged in criminal activity.

“He then informed me that the park was closed … making it very difficult to believe a group like ours was just playing basketball,” she said. “He demanded my ID and registration, and my hands shook as I fumbled to provide them. When he noticed that, he again questioned my sobriety and intent to be in the park.”

January said the situation was only defused when the officer noticed her name on her ID and recognized that she was the sister of former champion WNBA player Briann January.

“What if he didn’t know who my sister was?” January said. “My car was filled with Black faces and Black features, and it seemed that was enough for the officer to doubt anything I’d said until Briann was discussed.”

The Spokane Human Rights Commission echoed these concerns, questioning the police department’s theory that a threat of arrest would act as a deterrent, and raising concerns that it would criminalize those engaged in no other criminal activities beyond being the park after hours.

Others, such as Justice Forral, an activist with Spokane Community Against Racism, argued the ordinance would disproportionately be used against nonviolent people, such as workers who have to walk home late at night and homeless residents looking for a place to sleep.

Stratton, whose comments Monday were repeatedly disrupted by some in attendance who opposed her ordinance, said police would use their discretion judiciously.

“If you’re in the park or walking through the park or riding a bike through the park or walking your dog to the park and an officer comes up to you … chances are you’re not going to get into any trouble,” Stratton said.

But she added that she had heard the concerns and noted that the ordinance passed Monday included a provision requiring the police department provide data annually about arrests in the park.

Editor’s note: This story was updated on June 27 to correct the spelling of the name of Justice Forral.