Councilman Wants To Ease Restrictions In City Parks

When the rights of one group collide with another, laws are introduced, debated, enforced and tweaked. So it goes with an ordinance that bans some people from Seattle parks.

Seattle City Councilman Nick Licata wants to dilute the law, saying it has a disproportionate impact on the homeless and minorities, and it has jailed people unjustly for long periods of time.

Seattle police, park officials and some residents disagree, saying the ordinance has made parks more orderly and safe - protecting the rights of park users against uncivil and criminal behavior.

A public hearing is scheduled tomorrow night to debate proposed amendments to the Parks Enhanced Code Enforcement Ordinance. It will be at 6:30 p.m. in the Seattle City Council chambers in the Municipal Building.

"This has had a devastating impact on people of little means," said Licata's aide, Lisa Herbold.

The ordinance, in effect for almost two years, allows police, park officials and animal-control officers to banish anyone from a park for engaging in unlawful activities, such as drinking, camping, using drugs or weapons, indecent exposure or walking dogs off-leash.

The first offense is typically punished by a seven-day exclusion from the park, or other parks in a surrounding zone; the second is a 90-day banishment. Three offenses in one year mean exclusion from all city parks.

Records from the first year show that 53 percent of the people were banished for drinking and 22 percent for camping or trespassing. Forty percent of those excluded were minorities - twice the citywide average.

Licata's proposed amendments to the ordinance would "limit the impacts on communities of color and the homeless," said Herbold, who noted that most of the exclusions - 65 percent - occurred in downtown parks where homeless tend to congregate.

Seattle police don't want the law changed. Lt. Ted Jacoby said the law has helped officers deal with repeat violators in parks.

"People argue that this is just another tool for cops to pick on people who are already downtrodden," he said. "In fact, that argument doesn't hold up intuitively or statistically."

Jacoby said most of the exclusions were for drug violations, weapons, fighting and alcohol abuse.

Park officials agree. Crew chiefs have seen a "noticeable decrease in vandalism and graffiti - the nuisance sort of things," said Dewey Potter, spokesman for the Department of Parks and Recreation.

Others argue the law is too narrowly directed at the homeless.

Carol Ellerby, staff attorney with the Seattle/King County Public Defender Association, said she represents a Native-American man who has already been in jail 10 days for criminal trespassing based on an exclusion notice he received when he was in a Denny Regrade park with three unopened cans of malt liquor. He was not intoxicated.

"It's outrageous," she said of the law. "If a Belltown resident was walking through the park with a bottle of wine in his pack, no officer would stop him. I think this law is directed at the homeless - to move them along."

Lisa Daugaard, another attorney with the Public Defender Association, said she represented a Somali man who was illiterate in his own language and in English when police arrested him last August. He had been excluded from a park, and was in a different park when he saw police ticketing someone else for drinking, Daugaard said.

The man approached the officers to tell them he was not drinking, she said. Police did a check on his name and discovered he'd been excluded from another park and was in violation of the exclusion law. He went to jail for two weeks.

"I think this law makes it criminal to be homeless and to choose to be in a park," she said.