By Linda Blackford
The aldermen first aired their idea before a unique forum: the Board of Young Adult Police Commissioners, considered the first official liaison in the country between teen-agers and the police.
The 22 elected youth commissioners then took the idea out to New Haven's six high schools, talked to their classmates and came back with a unanimous report.
Not surprisingly, the curfew wasn't popular with New Haven teen-agers. The surprising part, however, was that teens didn't oppose the curfew because it would keep them off the streets. They opposed it because they considered a curfew a "Band-Aid" solution that does not address the deeper causes of youth violence.
"Instead, we need more programs for the youth," said Brooke Dozier, the 17-year-old Hill House High School senior who is currently president of the youth board. The police and city council were so impressed by the youth board's arguments they decided not to impose a curfew.
It's not that Dozier is naive about youth night crime. A few years ago, as she and her family slept inside, Dozier's house was firebombed by drug dealers who were angry at the family's anti-drug crusade in their neighborhood.
But the answer, she believes, is "to take the crime out of the hearts of people and develop more respect from the community for the law and law enforcers. Then there has to be law enforcement that respects youth."
To help foster that mutual respect in New Haven, the youth board meets regularly with police and city officials. They even interview new police recruits. If a recruit doesn't seem sensitive to youth concerns, Dozier said, the police chief hears about it and the recruit generally is given more training.
Over the past decade, arrest rates for homicides committed by 14- to 17- year-olds tripled. The homicide rate for teen-age boys is at a 40-year high. Adding to fear of continuing escalation of the problem, the teen population is projected to increase by 20 percent in the next 10 years, according to U.S. Census figures.
So politicians and police have turned to curfews to stem the tide of youth violence. According to the Police Executive Research Forum in Washington D.C., 75 percent of the largest 200 U.S. cities have introduced curfews.
While curfews often meet constitutional court challenges, so far courts have upheld them as reasonable answers to escalating youth violence.
Curfews have won out, say New Haven's youth commissioners, because there aren't enough youth boards like theirs. "The board feels very strongly that the answer is including and empowering youth," said Detective Tom Morrissey, a 26-year veteran of the New Haven police force who works full time with the board.
"Young people today feel totally isolated," said Morrissey. "They feel adults do not listen to them and refuse to allow them to be part of the process."
Board members are invited to travel around the country, showing communities how to set up similar youth boards and preaching the gospel of deeper solutions to teen violence.
The dean of the College of Criminal Justice at Northeastern University, James Alan Fox, seems to agree with them.
In March, Fox released a study titled "Trends in Juvenile Violence" concluding that very few juvenile crimes actually occur after midnight. "The prime time is from 3 p.m. to 8 p.m.," Fox said. "About 40 percent of the crimes are when parents aren't home and schools are closed and kids are on their own."
Incidentally, Fox said, Planned Parenthood data showed that the majority of teen pregnancies are also conceived at that same "prime time." Fox said youth violence has risen because young people are less supervised while after-school programs have been cut back. "We need after-school programs like we used to have," Fox said. "Not just sports, but drama and arts to make sure kids are engaged."
In Dallas, however, police found that the majority of teen crimes were being committed between 11 p.m. and 6 a.m., the hours of the weekly curfew the City Council had proposed in 1991.
Numerous court challenges prevented the police from enforcing it until 1994, when the U.S. Supreme Court upheld a Fifth Circuit ruling, said assistant chief Marlin Price.
Opponents say curfews are necessarily discriminatory toward poor and minority teens, but Price said the police have seen no evidence of that problem. Police spend more time warning children to go home than actually arresting them.
"We believe it's been successful," Price said. "We've seen a lot of voluntary compliance because it gives parents an authoritative basis for what children believe is an arbitrary decision."
Price believes the curfew solves more problems than programs can. "What are you going to do, give them an after-school program until 3 a.m.?"
Many city officials, however, refuse to choose between the two approaches, seeking to combine curfews with more teen involvement.
In Portland, Ore., where the curfew is a year old, the police department is setting up a youth board based on the New Haven model. The department would like to see young people "identify the problems and the resolutions that are important to them," said Lt. Darrel Schenck, who is involved in the effort.
In Tacoma, Wash., the Tacoma Curfew Advocacy Project is run by youth workers. With the help of the Boys and Girls Club, project workers started four late-night activities programs that work to complement the curfew. With law enforcement's sanction, the city also has 15 youth centers running events until midnight.
Brooke Dozier says that despite their close relationships with police, New Haven's youth commissioners are respected within the teen community.
"Even if we did have trouble from kids, or someone gave us a hard
time, I'd still be on the board because I think it's so important," she
Copyright ©1997 American News Service
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