A bill that Montgomery County Police hope will maintain low juvenile crime rates and curb influxes of gang violence is come under attack by area residents who say their freedoms are at risk while they stand little to gain.
The curfew proposed by County Executive Isiah Leggett would give police officers the authority to send unsupervised youth under 18 home after 11 p.m. on weeknights and midnight on weekends, with exceptions for activities related to school, sports, religion, and other extracurriculars. And police would not interfere with law-abiding teens leaving late night movies or similar events, according to County spokesperson Lucille Baur.
Curfews, already in place in nearby Washington, D.C., and Prince George’s County, have been a contentious issue in the area for decades. When D.C.’s youth curfew was signed into law in July 1995, it was not the district’s first experience with limiting youths’ time in the streets. Another had been in place since 1989 but was struck down as unconstitutional by a federal judge. The same week, Frederick County’s curfew was struck down and replaced as well.
And while Montgomery County Police and Leggett have often said this county has become an attractive late-night option for teenagers looking to avoid their districts’ stricter policies, this reasoning isn’t enough to persuade many area residents.
“It seems like the council is using teens like their gambling chips, like they’re just going up to Atlantic City and trying to solve gang violence. But they’re risking our livelihood,” said Rockville resident 16-year-old Raynell Cooper. Cooper, who will be a college freshman in the fall, was one of dozens who attended the July 26 public County Council hearing on the bill.
“This i believe came as a surprise to young people that a curfew was being proposed, because this is a county where crime trends are going down and this proposal was not pegged to any one dramatic incident where someone lost their life,” Baur said.
Officials point to Silver Spring melee to justify the change
However, officials at the recent council hearing reminded the attendees of the recent stabbing that occurred in Downtown Silver Spring on July 4, and the difficulty police officers had in dispersing groups of youth – some with gang affiliations – roving the area throughout the night.
And while overall crime in the county has gone down, juvenile arrests have increased from 2,035 to 3,222 from 2009 to 2010, according to Montgomery County Police Chief Thomas Manger. Part of that is a 6 percent increase that does not include alcohol related offenses, he said.
And while the concept of curfew shocked some, youth rallied in opposition within weeks to form a Facebook group, Stand Up to the MoCo Youth Curfew, with more than 6,400 members.
“A curfew will make every kid in Montgomery County a suspect simply because of their age,” said Abigail Burman, the group’s 17-year-old founder.
“These numbers are going down because the police are doing a great job enforcing laws, and we can make it work better when teens are included in working with these issues,” she said at the public hearing.
And while Burman said she curfews have been proven not to work in reducing crime, a 2003 studies from Prince George’s showed victimization of youth and young adults falls significantly during curfew hours.
Baur said the curfew would be a tool for police officers to better deal with juveniles who have committed crimes past curfew hours.
“The only time [police would] be on the lookout for a juvenile is because it had been brought to their attention there was a suspicious situation or a fight in progress,” Baur said.
Some call curfew impractical
Some officials, like state delegate Kirill Resnick, said the law seemed impractical to enforce, and opposed holding businesses accountable for serving youth after curfew hours.
“Our businesses are trying to recover and we do not need to put a halt on another facet of economic recovery,” said Resnick (D-Montgomery County), adding, “Why would we wanna limit that movie theater from making the necessary revenue it could, or the all night diner or the baseball games?”
The bill will be finalized in fall and voted on during a September work session, with concerns from teens, parents and county residents shaping its contents until the end.
For example, the county is still seeking a balance in holding parents accountable for any criminal actions their child takes, in deciding whether they should simply be fined or provided resources like parenting seminars.
“There’s always something that young people are gonna feel isn’t fair or they feel they’re being singled out, and it’s just something that happens generationally,” Baur said.
Some youth asked the council members to look at the curfew from their perspective, posing the question of whether they would have supported the measure as teenagers: “They said, ‘No, I wouldn’t support it, but I also would wanna go to school two days a week either.’”
Photos by Rebecca Lurye