Parks' smoking ban: Will homeless be the targets?

By David Kroman
Crosscut archive image.

Occidental Park is often a haven for the homeless although it also can draw crowds for farmers markets, pre-game sports rallies or other events.

By David Kroman

Seattle looks to be following in the footsteps of New York, San Francisco, Boston and Portland in imposing a tobacco ban in all Seattle parks. If everything goes to according to plan, the city's parks could be smokeless by early this summer.

City officials are selling the ban as an effort to improve health, particularly by reducing exposure to secondhand smoke, and cut the number of cigarette butts collecting in public spaces. But some wonder if incidental inhalation and environmental health are the only motivation for smokeless parks.

"We are very concerned,"said Real Change director Tim Harris, "that this will be used as a tool to move people on from downtown parks.”

While it’s hard to substantiate claims that the ban is intentionally targeting Seattle’s homeless, the plans for the ban emphasize enforcement in Occidental Square, Victor Steinbrueck Park and Westlake Park, all spots in the center of the city where homeless people are known to gather and smoke. Estimates for number of homeless people who smoke range between 68 and 80 percent.

Also contributing to the fears of Harris, whose organization publishes a paper that provides vending jobs for hundreds of people, is the talk in Seattle about reducing public disorder. Considering the specific focus of the ban, as well as heavy support from the Seattle Police Department and advocates for making downtown more appealing to retailers, Harris as well as The Stranger newspaper have suggested that the smoking ban is, in fact, a part of that conversation.

Interviews with city officials and others and a review of emails and documents obtained by Crosscut through a public records request show that the discussions about the smoking ban have included concerns about health and the waste from discarded cigarettes, but simplifying enforcement of existing smoking restrictions also came up. And the plans were being developed as the city has been hearing lots of concerns about disorder and the gathering of homeless people in downtown business and tourist areas.

By a quick head count on a recent Friday afternoon, 15 of about 25 people in Pioneer Square's Occidental Park were actively smoking.  Park patrons are supposed to smoke 25 feet away from anything: doors, windows, other people. That rule is the result of a 2010 effort from then Seattle Parks and Recreation Superintendent Timothy Gallagher to ban smoking in all parks. But the public response was one of outrage and Gallagher quickly backtracked to the 25-foot rule.

Violation of the 25-foot rule theoretically results in a 24-hour ban from the park, but enforcement is discretionary and largely non-existent. Smokers  in Occidental are routinely within 25 feet of passersby and the Grand Central entrance, without drawing any action by park rangers.

The Parks Board of Commissioners, by request of Interim Parks Director Christopher Williams, launched the newest smoking effort public in early March. The board will hold a public hearing on the proposed ban on Thursday, before making a final recommendation to Williams. (Williams’ replacement, Jesús Aguirre, will not begin as superintendent until this summer.) The final draft should be approved by mid- to late-May.

Officials' justifications for the ban have focused almost entirely on public health and trash reduction. Indeed, internal documents show the current plans are to have the mayor present the final draft on May 31 — World No Tobacco Day.

Among those who have spoken in favor of the ban are Dr. Jeff Duchin, interim health officer for Public Health-Seattle and King County; Matt DeGooyer, executive director of the American Lung Association in Washington; and Brice Boland, Washington state field manager for the Surfrider Foundation. Their message is clear: Smoking is bad for everyone and cigarette butts are ugly.

The harmful effects of tobacco smoke, both first- and second-hand, are indisputable. The federal Centers for Disease Control estimates that, since 1964, approximately 2.5 million nonsmokers have died from health problems caused by exposure to secondhand smoke. "It’s not like we’re talking fragrance," said Linda Mitchell of the Downtown Residents Council, a group of neighborhood residents that is part of the larger, business-oriented Downtown Seattle Association.

And while Seattle may lead the way on many things, more than 1,000 U.S. cities have already paved the way for forbidding tobacco in parks.

Nevertheless, the resurrection of the call for a ban on smoking also appears to have aligned well with efforts to make parts of Seattle safer and more appealing to tourists.

Momentum for the complete ban actually got rolling again toward the beginning of 2014. In February, Williams and his deputy parks superintendent, Eric Friedli, sent a briefing memo to Mayor Ed Murray seeking direction on whether to move forward with a comprehensive ban.

This memo credits the Seattle Police Department and “several downtown activists” with requesting the ban.

Friedli, who has since become the director of the Shoreline's parks and cultural services department, identified those activists as the Downtown Seattle Association (DSA), Friends of Westlake Park, and the Urban Experience Committee. According to Friedli, the DSA sent the department a letter requesting the smoking ban. However, they were not seeking a citywide ban, merely one in downtown parks, and specifically Westlake. Friedli said in an interview that Seattle Parks told DSA it would not be able to enact smoking bans in specific parks and would need to ban smoking in all parks across the city.

But it appears that, when the memo was sent to Mayor Murray, the department was, in fact, still considering selectively banning smoking only in certain parks. The memo presents three options to Murray: “Should the City expand the existing 25 foot rule smoking ban to 1) all property under Parks’ jurisdiction 2) just downtown parks or 3) select downtown parks, such as Westlake and Occidental.” Clearly anticipating pushback on banning smoking in just downtown parks, the memo offers a strategy for responding to criticism: “Having an out-right smoking ban in selected parks (all downtown parks or just select parks) and not all parks could be defended by having a rational basis for the selection, such as information related to the park use and crowd density.”

Eventually, as Friedli said, the proposed ban would be expanded to all parks.

While it is associated with downtown business improvements, the DSA also has a proven history of outreach to the homeless, connecting them with necessary services like drug rehabilitation and case management. In 2014, their representatives and programs reached out to over 3,000 people, connecting 700 with local service agencies. In the words of Real Change's Harris, the DSA has been “very progressive” in dealing with downtown disorder. “When [President of the DSA] Jon Scholes talks about not being able to arrest your way out of this,” said Harris, “it’s pretty enlightened.”

Because of those past efforts, Harris was surprised the DSA came out so strongly for banning smoking in public parks. “This is an issue that’s an outlier,” said Harris, “where there’s not an agreement between human services and DSA. This is not typical these days.”

Scholes stressed via e-mail, “Seattle is a beautiful city, with a reputation for healthy lifestyles, but we’ve been behind the curve in prohibiting smoking in parks. Prohibiting smoking will make our parks more welcoming, healthier and cleaner for all.”

“We don’t see it as an attack on the poor,” said Mitchell of the Downtown Residents Council. “Parks are places where people come to relax. We expect to be able to enjoy the outdoors as much as we can.”

But it’s also no secret that making downtown more appealing to retailers and tourists is a priority for the DSA. In late March, the organization called for $20 million from the City Council to turn the corridor between Pike and Pine into, as their website reads, “the best urban experience ... on par with Chicago’s Michigan Avenue.” Scholes has also publicly lamented the state of Westlake Park, saying, “If we can’t get a 10th of an acre right, then we need to be really worried about all of the new acres that will be a part of the central waterfront.”

Most of the DSA’s public-safety efforts focus on reducing drug dealing in the corridor and increasing police presence, actions that many Seattle organizations, including Real Change, have supported.

But is the ban part of the DSA’s work to make that corridor more appealing to business? “I don’t know,” said Mitchell. “Not from my perspective.” Scholes did not respond.

In its June 2013 Pike-Pine Renaissance Strategic Assessment and Action Plan, the DSA says its advocacy efforts should look at “possible regulatory actions” in order to “enhance public space management programs and strategies to reduce … issues that impede pedestrian travel and negatively impact the character and attractiveness of the public realm.” A DSA letter to the Seattle Parks and Recreation encouraging the smoking ban came in the following months.

Thanks to the distraction of legal pot, the city's discussion of the smoking ban largely went quiet until last fall when Friedli and the mayor’s office started e-mailing back and forth. The question they discussed was, primarily, what does enforcement look like?

In a recent interview, Police Department Senior Counsel Brian Maxey called enforcing the new ban, which will be a joint effort between SPD and SPR, “not a real heavy lift,” thanks to the pre-existing 25-foot smoking ban.

The first draft of the enforcement protocol surfaced on Oct. 20 of last year and outlined four steps: first a verbal warning, then a written trespass warning, than a $27 citation and finally an arrest for trespassing.

That protocol predicts “most violations to occur in Occidental Square, Victor Steinbrueck Park and Westlake Park, because these parks have the most park users per square foot.” Those parks will be subject to patrols, while, according to the ban's memorandum, "outside of the downtown area, police precincts will work with the community as needed to address enforcement and respond to calls for service related to smoking as resources allow."

In one e-mail from last fall, a parks representative said that "an officer will team up with a ranger and they'll start at Westlake and then go wherever is appropriate that day," suggesting that, more than simply keeping an eye on downtown parks, enforcement will systematically target them.

Maxey made the case that, in a park like Westlake that is so small and so full, the 25-foot rule is already being violated at all times. And with the recent installation of a playground, children are at a particular risk for exposure to second-hand smoke.

But Sara Rankin, an associate professor and director of the Homeless Rights Advocacy Project at Seattle University School of Law, sees the focus in a different light, arguing that the homeless will take the brunt of the effort.The higher the population density, the greater number of categories of conduct that are prohibited. The higher the population, the more persecutory the space gets,” she said, referring mostly to laws around panhandling and sleeping, but also with respect to the proposed smoking ban.

Two days after circulating the first draft of the enforcement protocol last fall, Assistant Deputy Mayor Brian Hawksford told Eric Friedli in an e-mail, “We will not be able to move forward on the smoking ban at this time,” telling him to check back in in early 2015. When Friedli asked for an explanation, Hawksford said, “The Mayors office is currently working on developing a comprehensive enforcement framework for low-level offenses, and want to make sure each individual enforcement policy is consistent and in concert with the others, rather that moving forward with one policy at time and in isolation from the others.”

Murray’s Director of Communication Viet Shelton conceded that the language may suggest that smoking is being folded into a broader, public disorder umbrella, but he promised that is not the case.

Hawksford asked to first view the e-mail before commenting, but has not since responded to e-mails or voicemails. However, Deputy Mayor Kate Joncas said Hawksford was referring to the office's continued efforts to figure out how to handle both marijuana and tobacco at the same time and to make sure everyone was following the same protocol. "We needed some consistency and clarity," said Joncas. Now the law will be simple: "Everything lit must be put out."

According to parks' Communications Director Joelle Hammerstad, the police support for the ban came out of a similar desire for clarity. So much so that, according to Friedli, “SPD was a supporter of moving forward with the ban more quickly than we were able to.”

The smoking ban clarifies police enforcement questions around tobacco vs. pot smoking in parks, but that doesn't exactly explain what got the city moving again in March. As of the most recent March 19 memorandum, in fact, the details of the ban and its enforcement have not been revised since Oct. 20 – the memorandum on the City’s website is the same as the draft sent through e-mail last fall. Occidental, Victor Steinbrueck and Westlake parks are still mentioned by name and marijuana is still not included in the ban because, as the memorandum reads, “that is already prohibited in parks under state law.”

Even as late as March 19, there was still some confusion over the ban's language on marijuana. In one e-mail, a city representative said, "I understand that you are not including marijuana because it is already covered by state law, but what is the harm of including it? Why not explicitly call out in the Parks Code of Conduct that marijuana smoking and use is prohibited under the ban?"

Further, despite Hammerstad’s assurances that the smoking ban was on a "separate track from the public disorder conversation," Maxey made reference in a March e-mail to a “public disorder meeting” on March 6, during which enforcement of the smoking ban was discussed. The meeting, said Maxey, was a “retreat that was organized between a bunch of city departments: SPD, Seattle Department of Transportation, the mayor’s office, city councilmembers. We were just taking a deep look into the downtown public disorder and coming up with different strategies.”

That meeting, Maxey said, was a "citywide call to how we’re going to address these issues, because there’s a sense that things are really going downhill."

Discussion of the smoking ban at the meeting included a longer ease-in period, where only warnings will be given. There was also discussion “about how to streamline the process and get the enforcement underway earlier.” Mostly, said Maxey, they were just letting people know that the ban is coming and to get ready.

Nevertheless, in the meeting as in other discussions, the smoking ban appears to be at least bumping into the conversations around public disorder whether or not the two issues are directly related.

Councilmember Jean Godden, who chairs City Council's parks committee, promised an evaluation if enforcement of the ban does not appear equitable.

But as long as the ban focuses on the highest-density parks, it will be something of a Rorschach test: Some will see spaces where enforcement is most needed, while others will see a targeting of Seattle's poorest.

Update: Wednesday April 15th, 5:45 PM: Councilmember Nick Licata sent a letter to the Parks Board Commission Wednesday asking them to re-consider a total smoking ban. "Banning smoking," it reads, "may result in disproportionate enforcement by the City of violations by homeless and low-income residents."


Please support independent local news for all.

We rely on donations from readers like you to sustain Crosscut's in-depth reporting on issues critical to the PNW.


About the Authors & Contributors

David Kroman

David Kroman

David Kroman is formerly a reporter at Crosscut, where he covered city politics.