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Who's To Be Punished?

COMMENTARY by Helen Ubiñas
July 7, 2005

OK, Michelle Williams knows she probably should have planned better. But Tuesday morning, she found herself walking to the corner store on Garden Street at 2 a.m. after her nephew went through more diapers than she thought humanly possible.

"What would I have done if they weren't open?" she said. "I don't have a car."

If councilman Kenneth Kennedy had his way, the store would have been closed at 10 p.m. He's sponsoring a proposal to impose a curfew on neighborhood stores.

It's a bad idea.Once again, folks are attempting to reinvent the wheel rather than working with what they have - a pretty useful, if underutilized, anti-loitering ordinance.

And once again, it's the folks in whose name the proposal was crafted who will be on the losing end of it.

Just about every neighborhood store I visited in the North End these last couple of days has one of the red and white No Loitering signs. The 24-hour place on Albany Avenue has two, one outside, another prominently placed inside.

No Loitering, the signs read. Police Take Notice.

I wondered how much notice police take, so I asked the store owners. More than a few said not much, so they don't bother calling any more. Others said they stopped calling because when cops came, they walked right past the loiterers and into the store to ask the owners if they had called the police.

"They leave and we're stuck here with people who aren't happy we called," said Noel Ferreiras, who runs U-Stop on Barbour Street.

Hartford police spokeswoman Nancy Mulroy said police made 483 loitering arrests in 2004. This year, they've made 264.

That's too low when you consider that sometimes there were close to a dozen people hanging outside some of the stores I visited.

Hartford Community Court Judge Jorge A. Simon said there's been a spike in city loitering and trespassing cases in his court this summer. Most folks get a day or two of community service for the violation. But repeat offenders are dealt with more harshly, like the guy Simon placed into custody Wednesday morning after he ignored his repeated warnings to stay away from a building.

See, that's what I'm talking about.

Closing neighborhood stores early won't do anything but inconvenience the folks whose lives have already been inconvenienced, to say the least, by the violence that has taken hold of the North End.

Why not inconvenience the bad guys for a change?

Believe me, it makes an impression. It certainly seemed to be making one Wednesday when Hartford cops and their new state crime-fighting partners issued motor vehicle citations.

On Garden Street, where two officers ticketed abandoned cars, guys who were already annoyed at having too many blue uniforms around said the cops were harassing residents. But Kathy Melendez disagreed. The young mother was careful not to express her pleasure too loudly, but she thought the cops were doing exactly what needed to be done.

"They should make it hard for them to do whatever they want around here," she said of the young men who have claimed her street.Proponents of the curfew are quick to say these stores are magnets for trouble - and they're right in many cases. There is no need for all-night smoke shops. But many of the stores are at least outwardly legit, run by generations of families just trying to make a living, employing neighborhood residents who would otherwise be unemployed.

They also insist law-abiding residents have no use for these stores after 10 p.m., but the neighborhood folks I talked to said that's just not the case. They're convenient for those who work second and third shifts, and for those who don't have transportation to get to the all-night supermarkets outside the neighborhoods.

"Why punish everyone for the actions of a few," said Williams

As enthusiastic as Judge Simon is about enforcing quality-of-life ordinances, he reminded me that you can't just throw everyone in jail for loitering.

He's right, you can't. But you also can't continue to punish law-abiding folks in an effort to protect them either.

Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant. To view other stories on this topic, search the Hartford Courant Archives at http://www.courant.com/archives.
| Last update: September 25, 2012 |
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