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Weaponizing music? Some Tacoma stores are blasting tunes to deter loitering, camping

By Cameron Sheppard, The News Tribune
Published: May 26, 2024, 6:05am

TACOMA — Some businesses in Tacoma are deploying strategies to prevent people from loitering or camping on their property, including playing loud music.

People passing by or parking in the lot at the Walgreens Pharmacy at 3737 Pacific Ave. might hear the ominous chords of classical organs playing under the drug store’s awning.

On a recent day, the music offered a stark contrast to the sunny, spring weather. It sounded like something one might hear in the dark parlor of Dracula’s castle.

In an email to The News Tribune, Jennifer Cotto, a spokesperson for Walgreens, said that the Walgreen’s Pharmacy on Pacific Avenue participates in a program designed to discourage loitering by playing music at select times.

Cotto said that managers at locations participating in the program reported a “significant decrease in loitering” outside stores that played music.

The 7-Eleven convenience store on South 19th and South Trafton streets also projects music across its lot from speakers attached to its storefront. Instead of organ music, a classical orchestra plays for all in the vicinity to hear.

The manager at that location, who would not give his name, said that the parking lot and surrounding area were frequented by what he described as homeless people before the store started playing music. He said folks seemed to stop coming around once the music began.

The News Tribune reached out to 7-Eleven headquarters multiple times for comment, but the company did not respond.

Playing music so loudly that it keeps people from loitering might be an effective strategy, but it might not be entirely compliant with city ordinances.

City spokesperson Maria Lee told The News Tribune that under city code, noise violations can include sounds that last longer than one minute, are distinctly louder than other noises in the area and are re-occurring. She also said that music heard from more than 100 feet away from loudspeakers is a common noise violation.

According to Lee, noise violations can be reported anonymously to the city. All reported concerns are investigated by city staff, who determine whether a violation is present.

“If a violation is present, City staff work with the responsible parties to resolve the issue,” Lee wrote in an email. “If the responsible parties do not resolve the issue, the City may issue civil penalties or pursue other enforcement action in order to gain compliance.”

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According to Tacoma Municipal Code, a fine of $250 can be issued for each violation of the noise ordinance.

Since February, at least four noise complaints have been issued against the 7-Eleven at 1901 S. Trafton St. One complaint made on Feb. 11 alleges that the music could be heard 10 blocks away. Others complained of loud opera music that could be heard at 2:40 a.m.

In March, a complaint was filed against the Walgreens Pharmacy at 3737 Pacific Ave. In the complaint, the music volume emanating from the business was described as “beyond eardrum blasting.” The customer of the pharmacy who filed the complaint reportedly had a mental health issue and was unable to function due to the music.

In 2023, the Walgreens store at 8405 Pacific Ave. was the subject of five different noise complaints. Several of the complaints claimed the music was being played 24/7 and could be heard by all the neighbors in the area.

“It is illegal for me to play music this loud 24/7 outside of my home so they shouldn’t be able to either,” one complainant wrote.

Some local advocates for the homeless oppose the music-as-deterrent strategy.

Rob Huff, spokesperson for the Tacoma Pierce County Coalition to End Homelessness, compared the practice to hostile architecture, a strategy where private businesses or public agencies place obstructions in open spaces to prevent people from camping. Hostile architecture can look like large boulders or concrete block place near sidewalks and roadways or a park bench subtly designed to be difficult to sleep on.

Huff said the coalition is opposed to the use of hostile architecture. He argued the tens of thousands of dollars spent by governments to install rocks in places across Tacoma and Pierce County could be better spent creating solutions to homelessness.

“I can understand the frustration of businesses who find people on their doorstep every morning. My wish is that all of us, business owners and residents would spend our energy demanding that our governments create solutions to homelessness,” Huff told The News Tribune.