Commissioners to consider changes to spitting, lurking, disorderly conduct laws

Park commissioners are expected to vote in April to repeal or revise several laws governing spitting, lurking around bathrooms and disorderly conduct in the city’s parks.

The Minneapolis Park and Recreation Board’s Administration & Finance Committee will address what park staff describe as archaic, unenforceable or unconstitutional ordinances that aren’t applicable in the 21st century. The Park Board, which under the City Charter is able to enact its own ordinances, is considering putting a full review in next year’s budget in order to address other outdated laws in the park system.

“It really does need updating,” Superintendent Mary Merrill told commissioners at an early March meeting. “Right now, we can make some changes that will make a difference in our community and help our officers.”

The board’s legal counsel is expected to present new language repealing an ordinance that makes it illegal for people to spit in parks and parkways. Attorney Ann Walther of Rice, Michels & Walther said the law, which resembles a spitting ordinance the City of Minneapolis repealed in 2015, is likely unenforceable. Chief Jason Ohotto said the board hasn’t cited a single person for spitting in at least three years.

Commissioners will also consider revisions to the board’s lengthy disorderly conduct ordinance, which makes illegal “threatening, profane, abusive, disorderly, insulting or indecent language, conduct or behavior” in the parks, in addition to gambling and public drunkenness. Walther said they believe the law is “unconstitutionally overbroad” and includes language protected by the First Amendment. Ohotto said the law, which is an umbrella law for disorderly conduct, has been used 54 times in the past few years.

Finally, the committee will consider a revision of an ordinance that targets drug use and other inappropriate behavior in park bathrooms. The board’s legal counsel said the law, which makes it illegal for people to “lurk, lie or lie in wait” inside or outside a park bathroom, doesn’t address the problems it’s supposed to punish.

Ohotto said park police have issued only four citations under the ordinance. The park system includes 234 public toilet facilities, along with as many as 200 temporary facilities during summer or for events.

Commissioners said laws like these are used disproportionally against people of color. That’s the primary reason why the City Council repealed similar laws.

“I know what it’s like to be stopped and harassed by police. I know what it’s like to be dragged out of my car and arrested for being black in the wrong place. Our outdated laws and ordinances add to mass incarceration. Our outdated laws and ordinances add to the bad relationship communities of color have with police,” said At-Large Commissioner Londel French.

President Brad Bourn (District 6) said commissioners should take advantage of the opportunity to work with park police to “take the bad tools out of the toolbox.”

“Now is the time to clean up these ordinances when we have a cooperative department and a cooperative chief that wants to do the right thing for the community,” he said.

Ohotto said that while the commissioners should address old and unconstitutional laws, those efforts wouldn’t address the problem of unethical officer behavior. The solution for disproportionate citations against people of color is “hiring great people.”

“We know that over time through systemic racism that some of these ordinances have been applied in a racist way. We know that,” he said. “The solution is fixing the police officers, the profession, the biases, not in throwing ordinances away.”

Ohotto said the roughly three-dozen park officers receive implicit bias training. Last year, the department went through a new, 24-hour procedural justice training program for the first time. Minneapolis is a pilot city for the program, which he said addresses bias, historic trauma and the history of police relations with minority communities.

Commissioner Steffanie Musich (District 5) said she’d like to see a full review of the board’s ordinances, which include laws prohibiting drone use, consuming alcohol and moving park benches and tables.

Recent trends make these laws outdated. People may already bring their own beer and wine to certain events at the Commons park near U.S. Bank Stadium. Many parks feature movable furniture.

“Every time someone moves those they’re violating an ordinance, and we’re asking them to do that,” she said.

If the committee approves the revisions or repeal of the laws that action would then be considered by the full board. Those changes would be subject to other requirements, such as being printed in legal publications.