More than 100 people crammed into Burien City Council chambers on Feb. 23 to protest the city’s controversial trespass law, which allows police to ban people from public property for criminal activities and non-criminal behavior that is “unreasonably disruptive to other users.”
During a public comment period, activist Gabriella Duncan read a letter demanding that the council repeal the ordinance, which has been in effect since last August. Other activists stood behind her wearing shower caps and brushing their teeth, a reference to a portion of the ordinance that bars using public facilities such as restrooms for personal hygiene.
“If the city of Burien’s elected officials truly believe that everyone has the right to access public facilities, as you have stated, you will repeal this unreasonably offensive ordinance,” Duncan read from a letter drafted by Standing Against Foreclosure and Eviction (SAFE), an advocacy group that defends people from being evicted from their homes.
The activists who joined SAFE have demanded that the Burien City Council repeal the ordinance. If not, they have promised to return to the March 9 council meeting and every one after it to protest the ordinance, even if the issue is not on the agenda.
“We’re going to come back the week after and the week after until they repeal this ordinance,” SAFE organizer Josh Farris said into a bullhorn outside of Burien City Hall.
Councilmember Lauren Berkowitz, who has opposed the ordinance from the beginning, made a motion during the meeting to reconsider the ordinance. The motion failed in a 2-to-5 vote.
Helpful tool or harmful law?
The Burien City Council passed the first version of the law last summer in a 6-to-1 vote in response to a slate of complaints from residents and business owners. They said they feared entering town parks and a building that houses Burien City Hall and a branch of the King County Library System.
The law allows police to ban people for a variety of activities, including selling or using alcohol or drugs, threatening or harassing behavior, using hostile or aggressive language, gestures or boisterous behavior or using public facilities to bathe, shave or wash clothing.
For the first offense, police can bar someone from a public place such as a park or city hall for up to seven days. For the second offense, police can trespass someone for seven to 90 days. For the third, police can trespass someone for seven days to one year. The citations can be appealed.
If anyone returns to an area from which he or she’s been trespassed, that person could be arrested and charged with a misdemeanor with a maximum penalty of $1,000 and 90 days in jail or a gross misdemeanor with a maximum penalty of $5,000 and 12 months in jail. City Manager Kamuron Gurol said criminal charges would be limited to severe cases.
Proponents say the law gives police officers a tool that is not as harsh as arrest to deal with behavior on public property. Previously, police officers did not have authority to remove someone from public property.
Opponents of the law say it criminalizes homelessness and would harm the city’s unsheltered population. Critics also say it was ironic that people could be barred from property that is owned by the public.
The city council revised the ordinance in January, removing language that would allow police officers to trespass people for things as minor as having poor hygiene or an odor “that is unreasonably offensive to others.” That removal and a few other changes were made in response to complaints from the American Civil Liberties Union of Washington (ACLU).
The ACLU and others who oppose the ordinance were not satisfied by the alterations. The ACLU maintains that the ordinance is unconstitutional and unnecessary: Burien already has laws that could enforce criminal behavior.
Ryan O’Dell, a homeless man who lives in Burien, said the law could be enforced differently by Burien Police officers.
About most officers, he said, “They’re very respectful and very cool. You’ve got a handful of them around here who really don’t deserve to wear their badge.”
Big divisions, bigger budget
The ordinance has sharply divided those who say the law is harmful to homeless people and those who say it is necessary to curb illegal behavior in public spaces.
At the Feb. 23 meeting, the disagreement reached the boiling point before the city councilmembers had even entered the room.
Protestors had already started filling the space when Darla Green, who owns Skinperfect in Burien, stood up and confronted the protestors. She asked the crowd how many people were from Burien, and several raised their hands. Then she asked how many of them paid taxes.
“Anyone who does not live here, does not pay their taxes, does not belong here,” she said.
Other residents who oppose the ordinance stood up in defense of the protesters.
“My name is Su, I live here in Burien and I thank you everyone for coming here to take down this ordinance,” said Su Docekal, who held a sign that read “B-TOWN resident against 606.” The original ordinance that allowed police to trespass people from public property was Ordinance 606.
After Duncan delivered the letter demanding the repeal of the ordinance, protesters headed outside to hold a press conference.
Inside, the Burien City Council discussed how it would allocate its human services money to support homeless people in the area. The city council has a $275,000 human services budget, an increase of roughly $55,000 from the previous year. Councilmembers want the extra $55,000 to pay for homelessness services.
It was welcome news to Mike Heinisch, executive director of Kent Youth and Family Services and a member of the King County Committee to End Homelessness Interagency Council.
“Until probably the last two years, Burien has been a non-player,” Heinisch said of the city’s involvement in regional homelessness services. “I’m delighted to say that that’s changed, that you’re coming to the table.”
The city council has not determined how it will spend the $55,000, but councilmembers have started batting around ideas.
Councilmember Gerald Robison suggested finding space for people to camp.
“One of the biggest things is a safe place to camp,” he said. “I don’t know why we can’t provide that as part of our services.”