Everyone agrees it's a short-term solution. So what comes next?
By Daniel D'Ambrosio
August 21, 2008
What is there to say about a city in which 11 people are shot in one weekend, including a toddler in a stroller and a seven-year-old boy? The gunplay left a 21-year-old man dead—struck down in a fusillade that erupted shortly after the end of the West Indian Day parade a week ago Saturday.
Hartford City Councilman Ken Kennedy, also an assistant state attorney general, took a stab at an explanation last week: "I think people have a sense of hopelessness. If you have a bright future, are you really going to shoot people? If you think there's not a whole lot to life and don't see it progressing beyond where it is now, you do things you know are reckless. It doesn't matter to you."
As everyone knows by now, Hartford officials responded to the weekend melee with a 30-day curfew for people under the age of 18 that went into effect last Thursday. Mayor Eddie Perez and Police Chief Daryl Roberts also announced stepped-up efforts to pursue bad apples on a "most-watched list," strengthening enforcement and prosecution efforts, and called on the state for more "crime-fighting resources," and tougher probation for convicted criminals.
Under the city curfew, minors must be off the streets by 9 p.m. unless accompanied by a parent or guardian, or police will take them into custody and drive them home. If parents or a guardian can't be found, the children will be turned over to the DCF, according to Sarah Barr, spokeswoman for Mayor Perez. A second offense will result in a visit to community court for parent(s) and child, and a possible fine, says rJo Winch, majority leader of the City Council.
"[The curfew] is our effort to help parents," says Winch. "These are things that should be done anyway." The councilwoman is an experienced parent herself, raising three foster children, a daughter and a granddaughter in her home on Sigourney Street. "[The curfew] is an avenue for parents to tell children, 'You have a responsibility not only to yourself but to your parents to be where you should be.'"
Everyone involved agrees the curfew is a band-aid, a temporary measure that, if nothing else, at least shows the city is finally taking some action.
"It's a typical response from a city that sees a spike in violence," said Eric Bronson, professor of sociology and criminal justice at Quinnipiac University. "It will work short term, very short term."
Mayor James Valley says it's working for his town of Helena-West Helena, Ark., where the City Council instituted a curfew beginning Aug. 7 on minors in a 10-block area after three weeks of "rampant, random shooting." Kids have to be in school during the day and in the house after 10 p.m. unless accompanied by a parent.
Helena-West Helena, with a combined population of 15,000 after the two rural towns merged in January 2006, sits on the banks of the Mississippi in Arkansas' eastern rice and farming country and is one of the poorest regions in the U.S. Valley said the 30-day curfew includes the power for police to do an "investigative stop of people to make sure nothing foul is afoot" in any part of town.
The situation had gotten very serious, said Mayor Valley in a telephone interview. "Nobody was killed or even struck, but bullets hit houses of people we know to be innocent and uninvolved," he said. "An elderly woman in her 60s got to the point she was sleeping on her floor out of fear a stray bullet would hit her."
The Arkansas curfew has caused great concern in the local chapter of the ACLU, which says the town is violating the Constitutional rights of its citizens. The ACLU says any resulting arrests—there have been more than 30 since the curfew began, including 10 on felony charges—won't hold up in court. The Connecticut ACLU has expressed similar concerns regarding Hartford's curfew. But Valley waved aside such objections as ivory-tower posturing.
"We want to stop the bullets from flying and put fear into the hearts of criminals," Valley insisted. "We are going to seriously pursue them and prosecute to the fullest extent of the law."
Helena-West Helena Assistant Chief of Police Ronald Scott told the Advocate his officers have already seen a change in the people living in the most-afflicted 10-block area. Previously, residents were adhering to the "no-snitch" policy that also plagues Hartford, leaving police without leads to follow. Valley says he understands people worry about repercussions for talking to police, who they believe will then be unable to protect them.
"People were much more willing to talk after we started the curfew and made such a presence of ourselves," said Scott. "They want us to get out of their neighborhood."
What police learned, however, made the violence seem even more senseless. Scott says he now believes three weeks of shooting began over an $8 gambling debt between two men in their mid-20s, George Hicks and Jermaine Johnson. Johnson gave Hicks a serious beating, and that led to retaliation.
"I understand [Hicks] and his friends, his little clique, decided to start causing havoc in the particular neighborhood where these other guys live," said Scott.
Sound familiar? It does to Kennedy, who has talked to Chief Roberts about what's behind Hartford's continuing gun violence.
"From what I've been told by the chief, it's over small stuff, not over drugs, or even territory," said Kennedy. "Somebody has insulted somebody on a MySpace page, or it could be over a girlfriend—very, very minor things. It just shows our young people don't comprehend the finality of their decisions and actions."
The Hartford Courant reported that Ezekiel Roberts, the young man killed in Hartford's most recent violence, was found guilty in March of accessory to first-degree assault in the 2006 stabbing death of 17-year-old Hiram David Colon in East Hartford. Police were unable to determine who killed Colon as five others besides Roberts were involved in the stabbing.
If the curfew is a short-term fix, Kennedy puts his long-term faith in an educational system that gives Hartford's youth the intellectual skills they need to compete for jobs. He says the schools are moving in that direction, but "we're not moving fast enough."
Bronson has a more prosaic suggestion—a midnight basketball league.
"What is proven to work is having things to keep young people busy," said Bronson. "Having people invested in the community is another part of it, respecting other people and what they own and what they have. I just don't know if the people of Hartford are ready to do that yet."