Keep it down!
Chico police discuss proposed changes to city’s noise ordinance
More than 70 students and local citizens attended a Feb. 22 meeting at Chico State’s Bell Memorial Union to discuss a proposed change to the city’s existing noise ordinance. The crowd, composed largely of students and members of the local music community, mostly voiced concerns and opposition to the action, which would allow police officers to issue a fine of up to $1,500 on their first response to a noise complaint.
The current ordinance requires an officer responding to an initial citizen complaint to issue a written warning to the offenders. If the noise reoccurs within 72 hours, the offended party can sign a complaint and a citation will be issued. The new ordinance would allow tickets to be issued, at the officer’s discretion, on the first visit.
The meeting was the second hosted by the Chico Police Department to inform the community and gather feedback on the proposed change. Chief Mike Maloney was unable to attend, leaving Lt. Linda Dye to represent the police department.
Dye said about 10 residents, primarily from The Avenues, began complaining about noise issues at Police Advisory Board meetings in May and September, prompting the police to consider the first-visit citation measure already employed in Davis. The police are collecting input before drafting a proposal to ultimately be voted on by the City Council.
With the current ordinance, Dye said, “Someone can have a party, disturb neighbors, we issue a warning, and by the time we hit the next weekend it starts all over again. So everyone basically gets a free noise violation every weekend, but for some people in certain neighborhoods, it’s too much.”
One of the issues several students remarked on was the severity of the fine. Dye responded that $1,500 fines would be reserved for extreme cases.
“I can only recall a $1,500 fine being issued once and it was the fourth or fifth time we’d issued that house a citation,” she said, adding that most fines were in the neighborhood of $125 to $200.
Charles Pruesser, who last month co-founded an effort with Chico State student Kevin Rys called Students and Citizens Against Changing Chico’s noise ordinance, argued that the ordinance is working and already has a public-nuisance-abatement clause for repeat offenders.
Pruesser provided numbers obtained from the Chico Police Department indicating there were 880, 857 and 706 complaints in 2009, 2010 and 2011, respectively. Out of those 2,443 complaints, only 17 citations were issued.
Dye said those numbers only represent the complaints answered by officers, and that police actually receive more than 2,000 noise complaints a year—too many to respond to. She also said the abatement process isn’t feasible any longer because the special operations department has lost a crime-prevention officer and two community-service officers who used to handle that responsibility.
Many members of the crowd expressed concern over difficulties with unfair neighbors, and asked what recourse those fined have.
“Any time you get a ticket, whether it be for noise, speeding, or whatever, you have your day in court and you are innocent until proven guilty,” Dye said. “The difference between a noise complaint and, say, a speeding ticket, is that the burden of proof is on the person that originally complained. The police officer will show up and act as a witness, tell the court what they observed, but it’s up to the person to make the case.”
If the complainant doesn’t show up, she confirmed, the fine is thrown out.
Other attendees said they think the new ordinance targets students. A number also voiced concerns about what effect the ordinance could have on local music, with bands not being able to practice in fear of disturbing neighbors and venues in borderline residential/commercial areas being discouraged from hosting performances. Others said they believe the new ordinance is a money-making scheme for the police department.
Dye said that the officers would be as fair as possible and that the fines would not be a revenue generator, with most of the money going toward court costs.
“We’re not going to tell our officers that you shall go out and write a ticket on the first response to a noise complaint,” she said. “We’re just giving them the discretion to do that. It would depend on the nature of the complaint. If we get three or four neighbors calling in, that one would have a good chance of getting a citation because we have more than one person making a complaint in the neighborhood.
“If it’s a small gathering and everybody’s mellow, there’s the possibility the officer may use their discretion and not cite. We’re not talking about citing the first time out; we’re talking about giving the officers tools to resolve some of the issues we see.”
Other suggestions, all noted by the police, included changing the fine structure, encouraging landlords to inform people they are moving into high-noise areas, and suggestions the ordinance only affect certain areas, much like the city’s glass ban.
The sentiment and focus of the crowd was distinctly different from the initial Dec. 7 meeting. According to the minutes, suggestions included holding absentee landlords accountable, eliminating the citizen-complaint requirement from the ordinance, and fining “every individual occupant of the residence including management and owners. Fines should go up every time. Fine the band or DJ that is responsible for the noise.”
Dye said many noise issues would be moot if people were more neighborly, and hopes a change to the ordinance could help this along.
“A lot of these issues can be avoided through education and communication,” she said. “Our hope is, with the threat of a fine, people will be more neighborly and take the time to talk to people and make sure they’re not going to have problems, and to be aware of the issues with the noise, and that will decrease our calls for service.”
Dye said the next step is to write up a report—including community comment—and draft a proposal to present to the City Council’s Internal Affairs Committee, which will either send it back to be amended or pass it to the council for a vote.
“It won’t be during the summertime,” Dye promised. “We want to make sure that there’s an availability of this community to be at the meetings when we get to council.”