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Violence Sparks Creative Thinking on Curfew

Times Staff Writer

After 19 shootings in one week, Long Beach officials put some bite into their curfew law by opening up a center last month to detain youths found by police in public places between 10 p.m. and 6 a.m.

Since July 25, instead of being taken to the police station downtown, minors loitering on the streets have been placed by police into patrol cars or a van driven by two officers designated for picking up curfew violators. Each youth is given a citation and driven to a community recreation center in Silverado Park to wait in a classroom-like setting for a parent or guardian.

In the first week, 124 youths were taken to the center. About 85% were male, and most were ages 13 to 15, said Det. Stephen Stough of the Long Beach Police Department’s Youth Services Division. He has volunteered to work overtime at the center.

“We had an extremely violent week ... with a lot of shootings,” said Police Cmdr. Jeff Johnson, noting that about a third of those shootings involved a minor, either as victim or suspect, and that most occurred during curfew hours. Many involved gangs.

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“We need to think about getting kids off of the street,” Johnson said.

In response, the city started a task force, assigning two officers to work overtime driving the van and three to staff the center. Most officers are drawn from youth detective services, Johnson said.

So far, Long Beach police say parents have been supportive of the curfew law. According to Stough, about 75% of the time parents are happy to see that their children are safe and off the streets, especially in light of the recent shootings.

But there are critics.

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The American Civil Liberties Union has long argued that youth curfews violate the constitutional right to free movement and criminalize everyday and non-intrusive activities like standing on the street or walking the dog, unnecessarily turning law-abiding youths into criminals at 10 p.m.

“Curfews violate rights of young people who are citizens of this country,” said Alex Koroknay-Palicz, executive director of the National Youth Rights Assn., a Maryland-based nonprofit organization. He says that curfews stereotype youth and that there is no conclusive evidence that curfews reduce crime rates.

In Long Beach, however, the early signs are good: Gang enforcement Lt. Gary Morrison says that shootings have dropped about 60% since the curfew center opened and that last week there were only five. He believes that increased enforcement efforts -- along with the curfew crackdown -- have led to the decrease.

“Curfew enforcement was part of the puzzle,” Morrison said.

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Under the city’s decade-old curfew law, police typically issue about 1,000 citations a year, Johnson said. In July, 300 citations were handed out, which he said was higher than usual, although the numbers always rise a bit when schools are out.

The city considered creating the shelter 10 years ago but didn’t have enough officers to staff it, Johnson said. He said he was finally able to get money to open the facility by using the political pressure the shootings engendered and working in conjunction with the community center to cut costs.

The curfew center allows police to increase their efforts and keep youths separate from criminal offenders. According to Johnson, police previously faced enforcement challenges, because curfew violators could not be arrested or held behind bars with more serious suspects while waiting for someone to pick them up.

Youths would sometimes have to await parents for hours. Police occasionally were forced to contact the county Department of Children and Family Services to take custody of a minor until parents arrived.

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The Police Department is working with crime prevention units, Neighborhood Watch and the city Community Relations Division to get the message out. The city is also posting signs in entertainment districts to notify youths and their parents that the curfew will be enforced.

“We are telling our officers to cite any juveniles that are out during those times” the curfew is in effect, said Officer Greg Schirmer, public information officer for the Police Department. Exceptions are made for minors who are accompanied by a parent, are running an errand under the direction of a parent, are involved in employment activities or emergencies, or are attending official school, religious or other recreational events.

Once a youth is charged, he or she must appear before a judge to determine the penalty, which may include a fine, community service or probation, police said.

Curfew laws have been around for decades and reached their height in the 1990s, according to the youth rights group. Many cities across the Southland have curfew laws.

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The ordinances are generally enforced at the discretion of the police officer, and most cities use the laws to deal with minors loitering after dark. Few engage in any type of curfew sweeps.

Many cities focus on entertainment districts on weekend nights. In Lakewood, patrolled by the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department, officials pay special attention to the mall and movie theaters, using film attendance projections to determine the number of deputies needed to enforce curfew and asking theaters to start shows before 10 p.m., Lakewood Lt. Mark Weldon said.

Minors are usually already subject to curfews by parents and are often aware of city curfews. In Huntington Beach, for example, the curfew is widely known and police issue only about five citations a month, Lt. Craig Junginger said.

Hermosa Beach primarily warns youths and rarely issues citations, police spokesman Paul Wolcott said. Redondo Beach stepped up enforcement a year ago after encountering fights and gang activity at a local mall, City Prosecutor Alan Honeycutt said. In Santa Ana, police strongly enforce curfews along Bristol Street, with its bars and restaurants.

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Times staff writer Lomi Kriel in Costa Mesa contributed to this report.

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(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX)

Limits on youths

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Cities with curfews in Los Angeles, Orange, San Bernardino, Riverside and Ventura counties:

* Anaheim

* Brea

* Buena Park

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* Burbank

* Claremont

* Colton

* Covina

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* Culver City

* Fontana

* Fountain Valley

* Gardena

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* Hermosa Beach

* Huntington Beach

* Inglewood

* La Habra

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* Lakewood

* Lancaster

* Long Beach

* Los Angeles

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* Manhattan Beach

* Montebello

* Oxnard

* Redondo Beach

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* Riverside

* San Clemente

* Santa Ana

* Thousand Oaks

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* Torrance

* Upland

* West Covina

Source: U.S. Conference of Mayors

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Los Angeles Times


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