By MARK SPENCER And DAGNY SALAS | Courant Staff Writers
August 16, 2008
Tracey Ward thought she was going to have a nervous breakdown when she and her nine children lived on Park Street in Hartford last year.
"I can't follow them. I don't have eyes in the back of my head," she said earlier this week as she watched some of her brood wolf down hot dogs at a community picnic. "It'll never stop, all the drugs and gangs."
Her view of the city's 9 p.m. curfew for those under the age of 18, which entered its second night Friday, is echoed by many who live in crime-beleaguered neighborhoods.
Is she for it? Yes.
Will it work? No.
Still, she said, it's better than nothing.
"I'd rather have this happen than go to funerals," said Ward, who lost two nephews to gun violence.
The merits of the curfew, long on the books, but revived for 30 days after a spate of shootings last weekend, are being debated from the city's squad rooms to living rooms, and perhaps in the future in courtrooms, where municipal curfews have been struck down.
"Certainly a curfew is not a final or complete solution to the gun violence which has been occurring in our city," Police Chief Daryl K. Roberts wrote in his blog Friday. "However, for now, it is a necessary tool to ensure the safety of our youth and to protect innocent people from those reckless individuals who have no regard for their safety or the safety of others."
Police issued 16 youths written warnings Thursday night and early Friday and escorted them home. Repeat offenders under 16 will be given a juvenile referral, and those 16 and 17 years old will be charged with a misdemeanor. Police also reported that there were no shootings Thursday night.
But Jon L. Schoenhorn has been seething since the curfew was announced Monday by Roberts and Mayor Eddie Perez. A Hartford criminal and civil rights lawyer, he represented a family that challenged Vernon's youth curfew, which the U.S. 2nd Circuit Court of Appeals ruled unconstitutional in 2003.
"It's blatantly unconstitutional," Schoenhorn said of Hartford's curfew.
He said the court ruled that minors have a "fundamental right" to move about their communities. Municipal curfews also curtail the authority of parents, who have the right to give their children permission to be outside or impose curfews as they see fit, he said.
"The court said parental rights trump the municipal right to enforce a curfew," he said.
Schoenhorn described Hartford's curfew as a "knee-jerk reaction" that will allow police to harass young people. The city — and individual officers — also could be held liable for damages if they are sued for enforcing an unconstitutional curfew.
Vernon officials did not appeal the ruling to the U.S. Supreme Court, saying that fighting the suit cost them about $300,000 and could have cost $300,000 more to continue. The town paid $85,000 to cover the plaintiff's legal bills and pledged not to adopt another curfew ordinance.
David McGuire, an attorney for the American Civil Liberties Union of Connecticut, said curfews require a lot of resources to enforce and studies show that they do not reduce crime. The group has not decided whether it will file a lawsuit.
It's the manpower needed to enforce a curfew that concerns Gerry Pleasent, who put in 26 years on the Hartford police force, six of them as a deputy chief, before retiring in 2000. Police who pick up curfew violators take them home or to a relative or turn them over to the state Department of Children and Families if a responsible adult cannot be located.
It's potentially time consuming and could keep officers from responding to other incidents. "Once this is implemented, does the response time increase?" Pleasent said.
Roberts said two teams of officers have been assigned to enforce the curfew and additional officers are being put on the street.
"I'm pleased to say it won't lead to any voids or gaps," he said on the first day of the curfew.
And like other crime-weary residents, Pleasent said he is glad Roberts and Perez are trying something that may reduce violence, even if incrementally.
"Those kids out there are going to be constantly on guard," he said. You're going to interfere with some of their wayward ways, and that's positive."
City officials said they will periodically review the curfew to see the effect it is having.
In the meantime, 15-year-old Raheem Richardson is worried about how he will make it through the curfew period.
He has made some mistakes and is on probation, but is trying to turn things around, in part by working at a fast food restaurant in Manchester. Raheem's problem is that he often does not get off work until 9 p.m. He catches the 10 p.m. bus back to downtown Hartford, waits 10 minutes for a bus to the North End, then has to walk past a police substation to get home.
He said he could be doing exactly what he should be and still get in trouble with the police.
So what's he going to do?
"I don't know," he said as he buried his face in his hands in exasperation.
Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant.
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