SPOKANE — As the Spokane City Council conducted its run-of-the-mill business Monday night, approving a union contract and reading a proclamation, eight Spokane police officers in tactical gear stood at the entrance to its chambers.
The increased police presence for the council’s most recent two meetings has been a response to threats that are “specific and physical in nature,” said Sgt. Terry Preuninger, a spokesman for the Spokane Police Department.
The concern coincides with open forums at recent council meetings that evolved into a communitywide debate and platform for fiery testimony about the actions of state Rep. Matt Shea, R-Spokane Valley, and protests outside the Planned Parenthood clinic in Spokane, known as the Church at Planned Parenthood.
City Council President Breean Beggs has been told the heated Shea debate and bolstered police presence are related, but said police have not provided the council detailed information about the target of the apparent threat or its source.
“It’s obviously concerning to see people who are that armed in the chambers,” Beggs said.
The department’s tactical team is specially trained to respond to civil unrest and demonstrations. It is not the same as the Special Weapons and Tactics (SWAT) team, which responds to more acute and potentially violent incidents.
Now, the council is set to take up legislation that could directly impact the Church at Planned Parenthood, which Shea has supported and spoken at several times.
Councilwoman Lori Kinnear introduced a proposal Monday that would establish protections for health-care providers like Planned Parenthood from intrusive noise.
The proposal mirrors existing state law, which Kinnear argues has not been enforced when scores of anti-abortion activists gather outside Planned Parenthood, on Indiana Avenue, for the Church at Planned Parenthood.
Kinnear said she is unaware of specific threats made toward her, but she noted she was one of several members of the Spokane City Council who were targeted for surveillance by Shea.
After an August report that revealed Shea directed associates to compile dossiers on liberal members of the City Council, Kinnear, Beggs, and former City Council President Ben Stuckart called on Shea to resign. Leaked emails also showed Shea sought to purchase GPS devices to track political opponents.
Public comment during council meetings has increasingly focused on Shea after the release of a House investigation in December that accused him of engaging in domestic terrorism.
Beggs said the ongoing threat is concerning, but the officers’ presence has not disrupted the council’s meetings thus far.
“I have not felt unsafe, myself, but again, I don’t know the specifics of why I should or shouldn’t feel safe,” Beggs said.
Clay Roy, director of the Church at Planned Parenthood, said at Monday’s council meeting its church participants have “had serious threats” directed at them, including “online threats to take an AR-15 and shoot us.”
“We do carry weapons. The people that do carry weapons all have licenses to do so, and all have been trained. The only reason we do that is for the protection of that group and that is it,” Roy said.
After so much debate during the council’s open forums, Kinnear asked why the Spokane City Council is the place for it.
“I appreciate that people have very strong views, but I would like somebody to say what specific action they’d like the council to take,” Kinnear said.
The councilwoman noted Shea represents Spokane Valley, not the city of Spokane. In regard to protests outside Planned Parenthood, Kinnear argued it’s not the City Council’s job to enforce the law.
Kinnear also expressed concern about the cost of assigning additional officers to council chambers and the burden it places on the police department.
“I like that they’re taking care of us and making sure that the council meetings are safe for everyone, but I guess my question would be do we need to re-evaluate” the number of officers present, she said.
Preuninger, the police spokesman, acknowledged “if they’re not on overtime, they’re a resource we pulled off the street.”
“There is a cost. For us, if it’s not serious, we wouldn’t do it,” Preuninger said.
It’s unclear how long the department will assign tactical team members to council meetings. The department’s protection of public officials is not necessarily limited to council meetings, Preuninger said.
“You’re going to see different levels of protection at different times,” Preuninger said.