Want to spit while you’re running around Lake of the Isles this summer? It’s illegal.
Hang out near a bathroom at Minnehaha Falls? Nope, not allowed.
Let out a few curse words after hitting a bad shot at Theodore Wirth Golf Course? Can’t do that either.
Voted in on a progressive wave five months ago, the Minneapolis Park Board is considering getting rid of outdated, hard-to-enforce ordinances like these as it begins to bring about bigger changes to the city’s massive park system.
“Now is the time to clean up these ordinances. ... I think it’s long overdue work,” Park Board President Brad Bourn said at a recent meeting.
With six of nine members new, the board plans to review and update all of its ordinances next year. It’s already talking about whether to expand park areas where alcohol is allowed, allow drones and increase speed limits on bike trails.
The spitting, lurking and cursing ordinances have been in place for decades, but talk of the change comes as the Park Board tries to improve its coarse relationship with some community members.
The changes in the dated laws, which are being debated this month and next, are being driven, in part, by concern that they disproportionately target people of color by giving police a reason to stop someone.
“I don’t want to take away tools officers have, but I want to be very cognizant that we are not criminalizing noncriminal activity,” Bourn said.
The move also follows suit with the city of Minneapolis. The Park Board is a separate agency from the city, operates its own police department and has its own code of ordinances.
In 2015, city leaders tossed out the city’s long-standing laws against spitting and lurking, a victory for racial equity advocates who said the laws were used to unfairly target people of color.
Some commissioners say the change is long overdue.
“This is a no-brainer,” said at-large Commissioner Londel French. “These ordinances should line up with city law ... and hopefully this will help fix the abrasive relationship between the community and the board.”
French also said the ordinances give “bad cops tools to do damage” and that the previous board did not understand the urgency to change them. “We know some wrongs have been done, but this is our way of saying ‘we heard you.’ ”
In a March 7 presentation to the board, Park Police Chief Jason Ohotto recommended that commissioners repeal the spitting ordinance and revise the lurking in a restroom, prohibited language and conduct ordinances. The laws, all misdemeanors that have been in place since 1960, are difficult to enforce, and some are obsolete, Ohotto said.
The spitting ordinance prohibits spitting in limited circumstances. As it stands, park users can spit on the grass but not on walkways.
The lurking ordinance applies only to “inside or about” any toilet, while the prohibited-language and -conduct ordinances ban “threatening, profane, abusive, disorderly, insulting or indecent language,” among other things.
“There are a lot of concerns for people misusing the restrooms to either try to stay, sleep in them, bathe in them or use illicit drugs in them,” Ann Walther, an attorney for the Park Board, said in March. “The term ‘lurk’ isn’t necessary or get at the issue.”
The wording in the prohibited-language ordinance is “unconstitutionally overbroad and captures First Amendment protective language,” Walther said.
The impact may be subtle.
Ohotto said no one has been cited for spitting in the past three years. In the same period, four citations were issued for lurking near a park bathroom and 54 were issued for disorderly conduct. The chief added that park police do not document when people are stopped but not cited.
“These ordinances were all adopted by well-meaning park commissioners,” he said. “We know over time through systematic racism that some of these ordinances have been applied in a racist way. The solution isn’t throwing away ordinances meant to protect public safety. ... The solution is for us to do better ... fixing police officers, profession and biases.”
Yet this concerns French, who said most park officers have been decent. But he has heard of park users being harassed by park police for “looking a certain way” or being in parks that are in more affluent neighborhoods.
“We are trying to change the culture of policing and how they interact,” he said.