Noise complaints a tough call for police

Tuesday, September 10, 2013

Monday night, the Blytheville City Council's Police and Fire Committee addressed noise complaints stemming from activity at a Denny Street store and Sunbath Carwash.

Blytheville Police Chief Ross Thompson told the board that police have to walk the fine line of keeping the peace, while not harming a business.

He pointed out that the Denny Street store operates under a valid business license and in a business zone.

"It's going to create some noise issues anytime you have a business, even a little convenience store, surrounded by the houses," Thompson said. "It's going to cause us to be in conflict because the neighbors are going to want it to be quiet, but there is going to be an expectation that there is going to be more traffic and more noise because of the customers coming in."

The owner told Thompson that he mows the lot across the street from the business, but doesn't own it.

"I don't know that he has an expectation of controlling that lot, but I'm sure that it's been used before for his customers," Thompson said.

Nearby residents have complained about loud noise coming from the area, at times, preventing them from sleeping. They have reported fights and disturbances as well.

"It can kind of puts us in conflict because we zoned it as business, knowing it is going to bring in extra traffic," Thompson said. "But then when it does, we have a compliant for the noise. You don't want to hold it against the business owner who is operating, but it obviously can't go too far and be too loud. But there is going to be an expectation that it is going to be louder than a normal home that's in a residential neighborhood."

Councilwoman Missy Langston said she doubts that folks loitering late at night are business-related.

However, Thompson pointed out there have been times when police were called to clear a business lot, then the owner became upset because officers ran off customers.

"It puts us between a rock and a hard place," the chief said. "We want to keep the peace, but at the same time we don't want to hurt a man's business."

Councilman Stan Parks, who chairs the Police and Fire Committee, asked if the city's noise ordinance applies to all locations.

"Noise ordinances will apply, there's no doubt," Thompson responded. "But when you're using your discretion you're going to look at a business is going to generate more noise. There's no doubt about it. That's just the nature of it -- cars coming and going. With those cars comes music, we can't regulate when he opens and shuts unless there's an ordinance that applies. At the same time, there's a threshold that's going to get crossed. You can't define it, you just know it when you see it. Officers may pull up and there's three or four people just hanging out on a car and it's just bumping music at 3 a.m. That has nothing to do with his business. That's excessive."

When a business is closed, do authorities have more jurisdictions to ask people to leave?

"Actually, you're kind of pushing it because it is private property," Thompson said. "There can be some very fine lines."

Langston said: "It's not their private property though."

Thompson responded: "But does the owner mind?"

Meanwhile, Parks and Councilman Tommy Abbott both said the city has been getting similar noise complaints from residents near Sunbath Carwash.

One came from a resident who lives "a block or two away" and has a privacy fence, Parks said.

"We're going to have to figure out a way to address it," Abbott said.

Thompson noted when attendants are on duty, they've helped curb some of the noise. He said the carwash owner has been cooperative and doesn't want complaints.

However, Councilman R.L. Jones said there have been noise complaints even when there is an attendant on duty. Thompson said by its nature, that type of business generates noise -- and if it wasn't near a residential area, there likely wouldn't be any beef with the activity.

Langston suggested speaking to the Planning Commission about some of the zoning regulations, hoping to find something in the law that addresses noise issues at businesses.

In other business, Parks said next month the board will consider a policy manual written by the Arkansas Association of Police Chiefs in collaboration with the Arkansas Municipal League.

Thompson pointed out they are model policies that address "high-risk, high-liability" situations such as use of force. The policies don't include regulations like uniforms, he said.

If the Police and Fire Committee gives its approval, the proposal will go before the Personnel Committee, then potentially to the City Council.

Thompson said the department has begun implementing some of the policies already.

"We've been in compliance with most of these," Thompson said. "There's hardly a one that they introduced that we didn't have something with it. In reviewing it, it's really good, updated information."

The chief also reported that the Police Department is budgeted for 45 officers, but is staffed at 37. He anticipates three resignations within the next month, though there are three applicants in the assessment process right now.

Meanwhile, the Police Department is on pace to be about $581,227 under budget at the end of the year.

The department has spent $1,643,777 of its $3,027,987 budget through August, according to figures from Abbott, who chairs the Finance and Purchasing Committee.

Abbott's numbers show the budget for January to August was $2,018,658, meaning the BPD spent about $400,000 less than allotted over that time.

"I don't have the figures yet for revenue year-to-date so don't get excited about having $400,000 there because we're still experiencing something of a shortfall in revenue," Abbott said, attributing part of that to smaller state turnback checks that stem from the population decline.

The Corrections Department budgeted $794,686 for the year, but has only spent $57,059 through August. The reason why the department is so under budget is the city isn't paying the 2013 jail fees while the matter is in litigation. However, the city is paying on the jail fee debt from 2011-2012, when it was under contract with the county.

The Fire Department is also well under budget, according to Abbott.

Of the $2,321,348 budget for 2013, the Fire Department has spent $1,131,339 through August. Its budget through August was $1,547,565.

"Again, there's that $400,000 mark that may not be existent," Abbott said. "But it looks good."

Meanwhile, Fire Chief Mike Carney reported:

-- The Fire Department submitted a SAFER grant application on Aug. 30. If awarded, the grant would pay for the cost of three firefighters for a two-year period. Carney noted his department is budgeted for 38, but is operating with 34, including a three-man shortage on the line.

-- Walmart awarded the department a $2,000 community grant to pay for smoke detectors and weather radios, which are issued out to community members.

-- The department is revising its disaster preparedness plans, updating the emergency contact list and identifying available resources.

-- The department has completed the annual business inspections, finding no major safety violations.