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The Spokesman-Review Newspaper
Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Brown commits to ‘Safe Streets Now,’ finally relaunching Spokane’s delayed traffic officer unit

High Drive is pictured Sept. 4, 2020, near 20th Avenue as a police traffic unit waits nearby.  (Jesse Tinsley/The Spokesman-Review)

Spokane Mayor Lisa Brown pledged Wednesday morning to make the city safer for pedestrians and bicyclists following a recent spate of fatal accidents.

Installing more traffic cameras, reducing speed limits, converting one-ways to two-way streets and outlawing right turns at red lights at some intersections are among the strategies that Spokane city staff will consider to improve pedestrian and bicyclist safety, Brown announced.

The mayor made these commitments in front of the downtown intersection of Main Avenue and Browne Street where just three weeks earlier 78-year-old author and foster care advocate Janet Mann was hit and killed by a driver while she was walking in a crosswalk.

“While no one deliberately sets out to harm another person when they get behind the wheel of a car or a truck, tragedies like these are too often resulting in the devastating loss of our loved ones and neighbors,” Brown said.

She committed to identifying streets where speed limits would be reduced, intersections where drivers would not be allowed to take free turns through red lights, and intersections where the city would implement a “leading pedestrian interval,” a period of time where pedestrians can cross the street before motor vehicles are given a green light.

Various city departments will also work to double the number of speed feedback signs, which show drivers how fast they are driving to discourage speeding, within the next two years, Brown said.

In most cases, these commitments are only in the planning stages, and the administration on Wednesday was only prepared to announce a few short-term rollout plans, including upgrading protections for eight bike lanes over the next four years.

Brown, who is in her seventh month as mayor, also blamed former Mayor Nadine Woodward and Woodward’s cabinet members for continued delays to relaunching a dedicated traffic enforcement unit in the police department or expanding the city’s ticket-issuing traffic cameras.

Brown signed two pieces of legislation Wednesday, including an executive order following the Janet Mann Safe Streets Now resolution introduced by Councilman Zack Zappone and approved unanimously by the City Council on June 24. This resolution called on the administration to implement “adaptive design strategies,” relatively affordable, temporary infrastructure to improve bicycle and pedestrian safety, such as bollards and concrete wheel stops, which can be quickly installed to pilot possible longer-term solutions.

Brown’s executive order declared that the safety of pedestrians such as Mann will be the highest priority for city transportation investments.

The order committed to implementing adaptive design projects in each of the three city council districts this year and to contract with a consultant to develop policies by the end of the year for future installations across the city.

Other currently identified priorities include upgrading bike lanes on stretches of Riverside Avenue, Howard Street, Lincoln Street, Maxwell Avenue, First Avenue, Sprague Avenue, Washington Street and Pacific Avenue, such as by installing flex-posts and adding extra paint striping between bike and motor vehicle lanes.

These upgrades, mostly paid for through state and federal grants, will be constructed between this summer and 2028, depending on the project, according to a project list provided by the city. The city also has committed to building out a greenway, which prioritizes pedestrian and bicycle traffic, on Pacific Avenue between Washington and Sherman streets by 2026.

The second piece of legislation signed by Brown Wednesday consolidates the city’s various transportation-related volunteer committees into one Transportation Commission. That body will review, analyze and recommend policies and specific projects with an eye to eliminating traffic fatalities and injuries, and Brown specifically noted the commission will be tasked with developing a plan for expanding the city’s traffic safety camera program.

Slow rollout of traffic cameras and cops

The Safe Streets resolution also called for quickly installing traffic safety cameras, including ticket-issuing speed and red light cameras.

Council members, including Zappone, have expressed frustration at the slow rollout of these devices. The City Council pushed as early as December 2022 the installation of upwards of 12 on various Spokane streets.

Eighteen months later, not one additional camera has been installed.

While there is no upfront cost to the city to install the cameras, with the vendor instead being compensated on a monthly basis after they’re installed, Spokane Police Department officials have argued that a widespread rollout could not be accomplished without additional staffing in the department to review footage or photos before tickets can be issued and in municipal court to manage the added caseload.

On Wednesday, Brown committed to installing two additional ticket-issuing cameras in “high-collision intersections and high-speed areas” in the immediate future, which police department spokeswoman Julie Humphreys said Wednesday will max out current administrative capacity. The location where those two cameras will be installed has not yet been identified, though recommendations are expected from the police and public works departments, city spokeswoman Erin Hut wrote in a text.

As for the delayed rollout of more widespread traffic cameras, Hut added that she couldn’t “speak to why the former Mayor and former Police Chief didn’t do something,” but noted that Brown had pledged to develop a plan by the end of the year for future expansion.

Zappone said in a Wednesday interview that he would like a faster rollout of an expanded traffic camera program, and argued that changes in state law would allow staff from elsewhere in the city to review the footage, freeing up police personnel. He blamed police department leadership and the Woodward administration for the slow implementation.

When the City Council approved installation of a dozen or more speeding cameras in December 2022, advocates on the council argued it was necessary to improve public safety amid a lack of traffic enforcement personnel in the police department. The Spokane Police Department eliminated its dedicated traffic unit in 2021, citing staffing shortages. It was revived in a limited capacity briefly in 2022, then eliminated again at the beginning of 2023 as traffic officers were shifted to patrol positions focused on responding to 911 calls.

In late 2023, the Woodward administration and City Council agreed to pull $1.8 million from the city’s Traffic Calming Fund, traditionally used to pay for physical infrastructure such as speed feedback signs and intersection bumpouts, $1.4 million of which was intended to stand up a four-person traffic enforcement unit. Seven months later, this unit has not been launched.

Zappone said Wednesday that he was considering a proposal to claw back a portion of the Traffic Calming Funds dedicated to this purpose, arguing that the department appeared to have “not gotten the message that this is a high priority for the city.”

He added that he hoped a new permanent police chief, expected to be hired in the coming weeks, would help to implement long term change in the department.

“A new administration came in, and they can’t fix everything on day one,” Zappone said.

More information about rededicating traffic offers would be released “in the coming weeks,” Brown said Wednesday.

When asked why this had not occurred earlier in her term, Brown said she had not known there had been an agreement to do so.

“I was not aware that there was an agreement to stand up a traffic unit,” Brown said. “The former administration’s budget director did not make me aware of it.”

Woodward’s proposal to raid the Traffic Calming Fund in order to, among other things, fund a traffic enforcement unit, was public knowledge during Brown’s 2023 campaign for mayor. Brown was asked about the proposal several times on the campaign trail, and told media outlets she supported bringing back dedicated traffic officers but opposed doing so by taking money from the Traffic Calming Fund.

But Brown said Wednesday she had not been aware until recent mid-year budget discussions that such an agreement had been made as part of the 2024 budget.

“I didn’t know they had made some kind of agreement to stand up a traffic enforcement unit anyway,” she said. “Apparently there was an agreement drafted that wasn’t signed by (former Police Chief Craig) Meidl.”

In a prepared statement, Interim Spokane Police Chief Justin Lundgren wrote Wednesday that staffing shortages remained the reason that a dedicated traffic enforcement unit had not been started.

“The Traffic Unit was to consist of four traffic officers beginning in March of 2024 and was to grow to eight officers later in the year if staffing allowed,” Lundgren wrote. “The launch of this rededicated Traffic Unit was dependent upon staffing and in particular a group of new officers completing their training.”

But staffing attrition meant the department “did not reach our appropriate staffing level,” Lundgren added. Additional workload created by providing security for the Expo ‘74 50th anniversary celebrations required the department to transfer six officers to appropriately staff the events, he continued.

“At the conclusion of the EXPO celebration on July 4th, we will return those six officers to their former assignments,” Lundgren wrote. “We are pleased that the return of these officers will finally provide the staffing level necessary to allow us to dedicate four full-time motor officers to traffic enforcement.”

The interim police chief also emphasized that officers have continued to enforce traffic laws, including through temporary reassignment when staffing levels allowed, and noted the department had issued citations for 61 “moving violations” during Hoopfest alone, mostly for speeding, as well as 27 DUI arrests.