Wearing a backward baseball cap and a sparse goatee, Luis Mercado practiced dunking and dissing his friends on a crowded basketball court in Woodlawn Park Monday night.

It was shortly after 8 p.m., a time to savor in June when sticky air dissipates in a comfortable breeze. A guy wearing a doo-rag performed wheelies on the court, framed by burnt-out floodlights. Sisters from West Center City barreled down the hill ready to dribble. Woodlawn is “cleaner” than the park in their neighborhood, the older of the two explained.

Soon, all these kids could be homebound (or backyard-bound) on summer nights or face arrest. Disturbed by escalating violence, some Wilmington City leaders have proposed rolling back a citywide curfew for anyone under age 18 to 8 p.m. during summer months and 9 p.m. the rest of the year.

Violators, along with their parents and business establishments that cater to youth after-hours, could be fined up to $500 to $600 each.

If the new ordinance passes, Wilmington would be one of few cities in the country and the only one in Delaware to enforce an 8 p.m. curfew for all minors, according to data from the National Youth Rights Association, a Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit group that opposes youth curfews. New Orleans, Louisiana; Detroit, Michigan; and Columbia, South Carolina, all impose curfews beginning at 8 p.m., but limit enforcement to younger teens or in designated city districts. The city of Philadelphia has a 9 p.m. summer curfew for those under age 14.

Wilmington’s proposed changes are scheduled to be discussed by the city’s Education, Youth and Families Committee on Wednesday, June 14 at 5 p.m. The meeting will take place in the City Council committee room at the Louis L. Redding City/County Building at 800 N. French St.

City Council President Hanifa Shabazz, who introduced the proposal with Councilman Vash Turner earlier this month, said she hoped an earlier curfew and more rigorous enforcement would reduce the number of children victimized by violent crime.

“It definitely will lower the number of innocent bystander shootings,” she said.

But Mercado and other young people worry they are being targeted unfairly. Five of the nine juveniles shot so far this year in Wilmington were wounded before 8 p.m., according to a review of city shooting data. Among the victims was a 6-year-old boy, who was shot in the head last week while riding in a car with his mom.

An 8 p.m. check-in time is “way too early,” Mercado of Union Park grumbled this week.

If his parents don’t give him a curfew, why should the city? the 17-year-old said.

Other opponents argue that youth curfews infringe on civil liberties, drain police resources and encourage racial profiling. For decades, criminal justice researchers have reported that curfews don’t curb crime or truancy or make kids any safer. Instead, researchers stress the importance of youth enrichment programs and mentoring opportunities.
Young people congregate on Ferris Street at WoodlawnBuy Photo

Young people congregate on Ferris Street at Woodlawn Park in Wilmington before 9 p.m. Monday. (Photo: William Bretzger, The News Journal)

As recently as 2015, researchers at Purdue University and the University of Virginia tracked gun violence during curfew times in poor areas of Washington, D.C. Gunshot incidents actually increased during curfew hours, the researchers found.

Nationally, juvenile violent crime peaks in the after school hours on school days and between 7-9 p.m. when school is not in session, according to U.S. Department of Justice statistics.

The most effective crime deterrent is increased police patrols, according to Jeffrey Horvath, executive director of the Delaware Police Chiefs’ Council.

“People that are determined to commit crime are going to commit crime, even if that means violating a curfew,” said Horvath, a former police chief in Dover and Lewes. “I’ve never heard anything where a curfew has been a great success.”

Wilmington’s proposed ordinance cites “unacceptable levels of violence and delinquency,” with many incidents involving young people in recent years. Youth participating in any of the 11 locations of the city’s Safe Haven program would be exempt from the curfew, according to the draft ordinance. Young people would still be free to hang outside their house or their next-door neighbor’s house and go to public places while accompanied by a parent or guardian.

Curfew proponents say it’s just another tool in local law enforcement’s tool box, which, if used effectively, could deter troubled youth from pursuing a life of crime.

But by restricting youth movement and exempting city-sponsored programs but not other activities, such as rallies, Wilmington’s ordinance imposes “constitutional limits on children and their families,” according to Kathleen MacRae, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Delaware.

Moreover, if the city prohibits youth from engaging in peaceful protest after-hours, it could face a legal fight, said MacRae, who plans to raise her objections before the council but is taking a wait-and-see approach.

The ACLU has challenged youth curfews in other states with mixed results, she said. Youth curfews have been struck down for violating the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment, while other codes have been upheld, provided there are built-in exemptions for young people who work or participate in afterschool activities or rallies.

The National Youth Rights Association distributes “Protest the Curfew” stickers to young people who want to exercise their First Amendment rights and not risk police entanglement.
Lax enforcement

Wilmington’s current incarnation of a youth curfew dates to 1994, but the issue has been bandied around since at least 1919. Back then, The News Journal reported a proposal to ring a bell at 8:55 p.m. to warn children to start heading home.

Under current city code, unsupervised young people in Wilmington under age 18 can stay out until 10 p.m. on weekdays, or 9 p.m. if they are under age 13. The code also allows for later curfews on weekends — a midnight curfew on Fridays and Saturdays for older youth and a 10 p.m. weekend curfew for those under 13. Like other local municipalities, Wilmington grants exceptions for minors involved in emergency situations, running errands for their parents, or returning home from work or an official organized event.

The city curfew lifts at 6 a.m. but resumes during schools hours for school-age children.

Long associated with national emergencies and military occupations, youth curfews gained political traction during the 1990s as a way for elected officials to show they were tough on crime without “actually solving the problem,” according to Alex Koroknay-Palicz, a spokesman for the National Youth Rights Association. Young people are an easy target for “house arrest,” he added because they can’t vote.

Municipalities tend to ignore curfew laws until a high-profile crime involving youth compels police to increase enforcement for a short period. In effect, police engage in racial profiling in poor, crime-ridden neighborhoods, Koroknay-Palicz said, by stopping youth who look suspicious but haven’t committed a crime.

Shabazz said she is depending on Wilmington Police Chief Robert Tracey to ensure youth are not improperly stopped and searched.

“He is ridding the department of any mindset of that nature,” she said. “He will ensure that’s not the way that it is implemented.”

Police records show that Wilmington’s curfew law has been sporadically enforced over the years to try to tamp down unrest. From 2010 to 2016, the number of young people and their parents charged with curfew violations decreased by more than two-thirds from 62 to 19.

In 2011, the city operated a “curfew center” at the Walnut Street YMCA, where arrested youth were detained while waiting for their parents to pick them up. The center offered resources to try to keep youth out of the criminal justice system, funded by a one-time state grant. City leaders touted the program’s success; only 10 of 200 youths who were issued first-time warnings received a second summons that year.

The center later closed due to lack of funding; Shabazz is now investigating how much money it would take to reopen it.

“We’re hoping the community does a lot of policing before the police department has to get involved…” she said. “The policing would be the last resort.”

Without a staffed facility and social services available, John Rago, Mayor Mike Purzycki’s deputy chief of staff for policy and communications, worried that police officers would be forced to babysit youth until their parents arrive, when they “should be on the streets doing their jobs.”

That hasn’t been a problem locally, according to several area police representatives.

The state Police Chiefs’ Council doesn’t track the number of Delaware cities and towns that impose youth curfews. A News Journal analysis found more than a half-dozen local municipalities from Bethany Beach to Elsmere with laws on the books. But, as in Wilmington, enforcement can be spotty.

The city of Dover, for instance, has issued no citations to youth curfew violators since passing its curfew five years ago, according to Dover Police Department records. Dover sets a curfew for those under age 17 from 11 p.m. to 1 a.m., depending on the season and day of the week. Fines are $50 to $90, based on the number of previous offenses.

“We just don’t have a large amount of juveniles that are out on the streets outside those times,” Dover Police spokesman Master Cpl. Mark Hoffman said.

At the same time, the number of juvenile arrests in Dover for theft, burglary, assault, robbery, rape and other serious offenses climbed to 302 last year.

Dover based much of its youth curfew language on the city of Milford, which passed its current ordinance in 1997. Since 2012, police there have invoked the curfew three times to justify stopping minors, according to department records. No one was arrested.

Milford Police Lt. Edward Huey said the number of stops could be higher, but some officers log stops based on suspicious activity, not on youth curfew infractions.

Despite not needing to enforce the curfew regularly, Milford Police Chief Kenneth Brown praised it as a “great tool in reducing crime.”

Before Milford’s ordinance was enacted, there were too many teenagers roaming the streets at all hours, he said. Since that time, parents help to keep their children off the streets and apartment complexes have enacted their own curfews.

It’s a different scenario in Wilmington, with seven times the population of Milford and an outsized murder rate.

Thirteen-year-old Sarah Jackson, who lives on Linden Street, said she wouldn’t mind giving up some of her privileges in exchange for a safe environment.

“They’re probably doing something sketchy,” she said of young people hanging out after 8 p.m.

Jackson was hanging out with her mother, Lisa, Monday night for basketball tryouts at the Boys and Girls Club on S. Union Street.

Lisa Jackson, a former New Castle County police officer, urged the city to enforce the youth curfew while officers are out on regular patrols.

“You have to enforce something to see if there’s a difference or not,” she said.

But with malls, movie theaters and now the city cracking down on loitering youth, northeast Wilmington mother Andrea Jackson worries there will be fewer outlets for kids to be kids.

“Where we live, the children don’t have enough things to do as is,” she said.

A few blocks away, on a court crammed with deflated basketballs and spirits, nine-year-old Janet Myree was enjoying an evening walk with her 16-year-old sister, who doubles as a chaperone.

“When it’s summertime, you want to be outside,” the little girl peeped. “Don’t make every kid suffer.”

The Delaware News Journal
June 13, 2017