DURING the last four years, some 1,000 American cities and communities have imposed teen curfews in an attempt to reduce crime and gang violence and to force parents to keep track of their children.
Now Edward Flynn, the police chief of Chelsea, Mass., is considering whether to jump on the curfew bandwagon. The city has a 9 p.m. curfew for teens 16 and under on the books, but it has never been enforced. Chelsea officials are holding community discussions to gauge public support for a new curfew. Some teens in this town of 28,000 near Boston support the idea.
``I'm for it,'' says Paul Dailey, an 11th grader at Chelsea High School. ``Basically it's for community safety, so we'll have less trouble when kids are off the streets.''
As Chelsea ponders what to do, other cities are trying to assess the effects of curfews and the challenges they present for police, families, and communities.
While most evidence is anecdotal, a few cities show promising results; at the same time, curfews are being challenged in many states because they limit freedom of movement. Initial police resistance to curfews appears to be fading in some cities.
San Antonio, Texas, with a curfew of midnight to 5 a.m. for anyone under 17, reports a reduction in teens assaulting each other. During the two years of the curfew, annual assaults dropped from 3,600 to 826.
Police in Little Rock, Ark., say their nighttime curfew, started last June, has been so successful that a daytime curfew was passed a month ago. In an effort to stop daytime crime, police will question teens who are found on the streets during school hours whether they are truants or not.
``The point of both curfews is not to penalize the teen,'' says officer Charles Holladay of the Little Rock police department, ``but to make a parent or guardian responsible for the behavior of their teen.'' When teens are apprehended, the police contact the parents or guardians. In some cities parents must come to the police station for their child and pay fines up to $500.
Violent crimes in Little Rock dropped nine percent last year, and auto theft dropped 16 percent. Both were targets of the curfew. ``All crimes are down,'' officer Holladay says, ``so we think the curfew works.''Even if the curfews achieve their aims, some say the cost is too high. Robyn Blummer, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) in Florida, says, ``A curfew violates the right to free expression, the right to freedom of movement and travel, and the right to due process.''
In Dade County, the ACLU successfully challenged a curfew that had been enacted last year to help check violent crimes against tourists. A county circuit court said the Florida constitution granted more personal rights than those in the United States Constitution. ``We also showed that more crime occurred during noncurfew hours than curfew hours'' even without the curfew in place, Ms. Blummer says.
Lower courts in Washington, D.C., Maryland, and other states have also ruled against curfews, saying they violate state constitutions or federal laws. But last summer, the US Supreme Court let stand a curfew in Dallas.
``Since our curfew was established,'' says Detective Chris Gilliam of the Dallas police department, ``we have not taken a single child into custody for only a curfew violation. They have been charged with this in connection with other crimes.''
Dallas has also issued 1,466 curfew citations to teens under 17 since the curfew started in May, 1994. ``It's like a traffic ticket,'' says Mr. Gilliam. ``You show up in court, or you pay the fine.'' Another 393 warnings have been issued to teens for being on the streets after 11 at night on weeknights and midnight on weekends.
``The curfew is another effective tool a police officer can use in his law enforcement work,'' Gilliam says. ``It was prompted by citizens groups who wanted teens to be safe at night if they had to go out. We think the streets are safer, because all crime is down in Dallas.'' Some 56 parents have also been cited for allowing their teens on the streets after curfew.
Some critics suggest that exceptions in the Dallas curfew reduce its effectiveness. Teens are still allowed to be out at night if they have parental permission, if they are traveling to and from work or between states, or if they are attending a city, school, religious, or civic activity. Certain emergencies also give a teen the right to be on the street.
Local critics also see the potential for racial harassment by police and worry that a curfew cannot be enforced equitably in a big city. Curfews have a domino effect too; one community establishes a curfew, and surrounding communities experience increased teen presence at night, as young people escape the curfew of the first town.
Police in some towns have reservations about curfews because of the difficulties in enforcing them.
``If we were to enforce our curfew every night,'' says Captain Alan Fletcher of the Holyoke, Mass., police department, ``it would add a tremendous cost, because we have to have officers on the street and people to take the kids home. We have to plan in advance when we do a sweep.''
Holyoke is a community of 43,000 in the central part of the state with a busy district court. Alarmed at the growth of gangs and violence, the city council passed a curfew last June. Officials say, however, that it is too early to measure the impact.
``Sometimes we'll have 150 kids outside Store 24 at two in the morning,'' Captain Fletcher says. ``We say to them, `OK, time to move on.' The kids we take to the station have to be sent home as soon as they come in. You can't hold a kid under 14 in a cellblock. Our curfew is solid; all the towns around have copied ours.''
The debate in Chelsea
In Chelsea, a city that was put in receivership because of municipal corruption, teens are taking part in community discussions about the proposed new curfew. Some who were originally opposed are changing their views.
``I was totally against a new curfew at first,'' says Tamye Centeno, a sophomore at Chelsea High. ``Now I favor it because it will get the gangs off the streets. The law has to be flexible so the cops can use it or not.''
``I sort of favor the curfew now,'' says Abraham Rivera, also a sophomore. ``The point is to protect kids from violence, and maybe this will help.''
Chief Flynn says gangs are not a problem in Chelsea. ``But the cliche that it takes a village to raise a kid is right,'' he says. ``We want a curfew to be an `or else law.' Go home or else you'll be in trouble.''