Police given tool for noise in public parks; illegal encampments often follow longer protocol

Earlier this summer, the Seattle City Council passed an ordinance to address loud vehicle exhausts along Alki Avenue Southwest and other areas. 
One of their reasons: Excessive vehicle noise that can be heard "hinders the use and enjoyment of park areas by other park users (and) discourages many from utilizing certain park areas." 
The ordinance was signed by Mayor Jenny Durkan on July 22, and a warning period for tickets is expected to end this month -- though police said people causing excessive exhaust noise can be ticketed anytime. 
The ordinance – and the timely city council action to pass it -- has some people wondering: Why doesn't the city council act as quickly to address other problems in parks, including illegal encampments and the drug and human waste problems associated with them?

How the updated noise law was passed

Having an excessively loud vehicle has been against the law for decades in Seattle.

But that earlier law, section 25.08.430, specifies noisy exhaust exceeding 95 decibels. In a March memo, Seattle police said that was difficult to enforce. That’s in part because officers don’t carry sound meters, and those would need proof of calibration.

Seattle City Councilwoman Lisa Herbold told the council she conducted a public safety and health survey a year ago in West Seattle, and that the top concern for those surveyed was loud noise from modified vehicle mufflers. That’s why she drafted legislation to address it.

The legislation states cars with loud exhaust are in violation if they can be “clearly heard by a person of normal hearing at least 75 feet away from the vehicle."

The 75-foot standard followed a 1989 action by the City Council that said car stereos heard at that distance were excessive.

Councilwoman Teresa Mosqueda -- who described excessive noise as a public health issue -- amended the 2018 noise bill in June to require quarterly reports by Seattle police to the City Council on “demographic information regarding citations,” along with the citation dispositions. The demographic information, she explained in a council meeting, is to avoid unintended consequences in the first enforcement year. Those reports are set to begin no later than next January 31.

However, it’s not clear exactly how a potential bias would be determined.

The council approved the ordinance, which can be read in full here, with an 8-1 vote on June 18. Kshama Sawant was the only no vote, saying that in part was because she believed poor people and people of color with failing mufflers would be unfairly affected.

Sawant said that “policing is extremely biased, and police officers would choose whom to ticket and whom not to ticket.”

She also pointed out that at 75 feet you can hear most cars, and that “clearly heard” is subjective.

Sawant clarified though that “the people of Seattle should have a right to peace and quiet.”

How does the city address illegal camping in parks?

Seattle has more than 400 illegal homeless encampments, including those in Seattle parks

While there are Seattle laws against defecating in public and trespassing in public parks, police do not typically write those tickets. When trespassing tickets were issued to homeless people in the Ballard Commons park last year, city officials said they should not have been issued.

Instead the city follows its own policy in removing encampments – a policy revised in 2017 by the City Council, former Mayor Ed Murray's office and the Multi-Department Rules Committee.

The removal policy, which can be read here, outlines the removal process.

And that removal process can take weeks or months unless there’s a scenario that the city recognizes as a safety hazard.

Between August 2016 and June 2018, Seattle Public Utilities collected 70,934 syringes -- though syringes in public areas do not always indicate an immediate safety hazard, according to city officials. That number is separate from the syringes found nearly anywhere in King County parks, according to county officials.

These are the steps in Seattle’s encampment removal process  for parks or other public areas:

- A database of encampments is updated through calls to the city’s Customer Service Bureau, through the Find It Fix It app, and city staff observations

- The city's Navigation Team evaluates which encampments need further study, and a field coordinator is sent to evaluate the site.
- Outreach workers with a social work background are sent to offer services, including shelter. If the city deems the site a hazard, a 72-hour notice to vacate is posted. If it's not a hazard, the team will continue outreach. 
- If a 72-hour notice was posted, the Navigation Team will return when the deadline is reached. The team includes police offices, a clean-up crew and outreach workers. 
- The Navigation Team clears the area, offering campers the option to accept shelter. However, some refuse to leave camps on their own.
Follow this link to read additional details on Seattle's response to illegal homeless encampments.

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