Thursday, August 25, 2011

community members debate, seek alternatives to proposed teen curfew (updated)

Last night, community members on both sides of County Executive's proposed youth curfew spoke out at a contentious meeting hosted by the Silver Spring Citizens Advisory Board in the Silver Spring Civic Building.

Though county officials outlined several changes to the bill, which now make it a civil, not a criminal offense to break curfew and have exceptions for teens attending sports or entertainment activities, opposition remains strong.

Abigail Burman and Leah Muskin-Pierret, high school students and cofounders of the group Stand Up to the Montgomery County Curfew questioned the effectiveness of curfews. Studies of curfews nationwide, including those already in effect in the District and Prince George's County, show they haven't reduced crime. "We need to look at the facts, look at the alternatives and give the police a real tool, not a broken one," said Muskin-Pierret.

Lt. Robert Carter, deputy commander for the police department's Silver Spring District, played videos from the night of July 1, when cops in downtown Silver Spring broke up dozens of fights, one of which resulted in the stabbing of a 17-year-old girl. The footage shows a group of 38 youth between 16 and 22 years old "walking away from a fight" along Colesville Road, near the Silver Spring Metro station. A police officer drives his cruiser onto the sidewalk, attempting to corral the kids and get them to walk to the Metro, but some of the kids duck into an alley.

Many residents pointed to this incident as justification for the curfew. "I feel that there's an increase in gang violence," said Tony Hausner, chair of Safe Silver Spring, a civic group that supports the curfew. He cited the fatal shooting of 14-year-old Tai Lam three years ago, which was connected to gang members. He said that officials in Philadelphia recently extended their curfew to 9pm in certain neighborhoods after a series of violent attacks because it had already been "so successful."

"I recognize no one likes to have their freedom restricted," Hausner added. "[The curfew] helps the kids who are good kids . . . to get them out of harm's way late at night."

"I guess you consider me to be one of the good kids who needs to be protected," Burman replied. "But we're the majority."

Ellsworth Drive Is Alive (I Saw No Emo Kids)
Downtown Silver Spring at night.

Ron Ricucci, police chief for the City of Takoma Park, said youth crime wasn't a problem in his community. "Most of our kids are in Silver Spring" at night, he said, "and they come back to Takoma Park eventually. Do we have a problem? No. We have control of our kids." Chief Ricucci added that the Takoma Park City Council and residents "probably are opposed" to the restrictions, but the curfew would apply to all of Montgomery County's municipalities unless they chose to opt out.

Board member Darian Unger noted a "dissonance" between law enforcement professionals, noting Chief Ricucci's ambivalence to the curfew and opposition from the Fraternal Order of Police, who believe it would turn cops into "babysitters." "If there's no data from places that have curfews that this is worth taking liberty away, I don't see a need," Unger said.

Brad Stewart, provost of Montgomery College and a former criminal justice professor, explained that most youth crimes are caused by a few "chronic offenders," which the curfew would help police apprehend. He pooh-poohed concerns that the curfew would infringe on the rights of youth. "There's a lot of talk about teenage civil rights. Well, the rest of us have rights too," he says. "We're fiddling while Rome is burning."

It's at that moment that I challenged Stewart and curfew supporters. "It's hard to have a civil discussion about an issue that makes everyone emotional, but also one that's borne out of fear," I said. "Like Brad said, this is a problem with a few isolated incidents involving a few 'chronic offenders,' yet you've blown it up into something that harms a county of a million people . . . Why can't we put our minds together and find actual, effective solutions rather than giving into this irrational groupthink?"

Brad Stewart, sitting in front of me, leaned back and whispered, "I hope you aren't a victim, because it'll change your whole world."

"I don't live in fear," I replied.

Sitting next to him is Jane Redicker, head of the Greater Silver Spring Chamber of Commerce, which supports the curfew. "Neither did I until I was a victim," she said.

A few minutes later, as the meeting is still going on, Stewart offered me "an internship" to meet with the "victims of crime" and learn what they're going through.

"I'm sorry, Brad, but that's patronizing," I said.

Jim Zepp, a member of the Montgomery County Civic Federation speaking on his own behalf, urged community members to step back and understand the problem before seeking a hasty solution. "People do these things for a reason," he said. "You need to find out what that reason is." Zepp passed out a chart listing a variety of solutions other communities have used to combat late-night crime, including Nighttime Economy Management studies like this one for San Jose, which examine the social, economic and environmental factors that create safer areas.

Lt. Carter agreed, calling the proposed curfew "is one ingredient in the cake mix." He rattled off a long list of additional crime prevention strategies, including:

Anti-gang public service announcements.
Enhanced penalties for offenders.
More funding for gang prevention, more officers, and additional investigators in Silver Spring.
Bike cops in the downtown area.
Security cameras, and people to watch them. (The Peterson Companies, which manage the downtown Silver Spring complex, already have security cameras but the footage is only recorded and can be watched later.)
"Tweaking" the county's anti-loitering law, which was struck down for being unconstitutional.
A police substation right on Ellsworth Drive, so cops could respond more quickly to any problems.
Partnering with the management of the Majestic 20 movie theatre, which draws young people.
More Silver Spring Service Corps, the so-called "red-shirts" who keep the streets clean and tidy.
Opening Ellsworth Drive to cars on weekends.
Closing Veterans Plaza late at night.

While not all of these tools may be the solution for crime in downtown Silver Spring, they give lawmakers, law enforcement officials and community members a broader set of options. And together, they're arguably more effective than a curfew, which Lt. Carter said would probably take care "half, most likely a quarter" of area crime. Lt. Carter also admitted that the curfew would do nothing to prevent the majority of youth crimes that take place earlier in the day. Yet unlike a curfew, many of these strategies cost money, which in budget-strapped Montgomery County is difficult to come by.

After the meeting, I asked Lt. Carter if there were ever foot patrols in downtown Silver Spring. As part of former County Executive Doug Duncan's attempt to revitalize the area in the 1990's, he explains, there were as many as 28 cops on foot, scooters and bikes there. At the time, downtown Silver Spring wasn't as busy as it is today, and most of those officers were eventually assigned to other parts of the county where they were needed more. Yet as downtown became a bigger destination, the police force "never caught up with the growth," Lt. Carter said. Today, there are just 6 cops on bikes in the central business district, along with another 2 officers in cars who patrol downtown and surrounding neighborhoods.

The curfew, Lt. Carter said, is necessary because Silver Spring has a thinner police presence than he'd like. "Give me 24 more cops and I'll make Manhattan at Christmastime," he says. "You know how much that would cost? 6 million dollars."

It's clear that community members share a concern about crime in downtown Silver Spring and are anxious to find a solution. Unfortunately, County Executive Leggett has overlooked costlier but far more effective solutions in his eagerness to find a quick fix. Had he proposed a package of tools similar to those described by Lt. Carter, it's unlikely that the community would be as divided as it is today. A curfew alone might give a few residents of Montgomery County a false sense of security, but without the means to understand why destructive behavior happens and respond appropriately, it won't actually make us safer.


Woody Brosnan said...

woody brosnan, vice chairman of Safe Silver Spring, wrote,

Although I disagree with your description of the meeting as "contentious," I respect the fact that you reported both sides of the meeting in great detail and that you recognize that something needs to be done to address the crime problems. I did find it noteworthy that Councilmember Leventhal, while saying that he has not decide how he will vote, did comment that he saw no reason for teenagers to be out after midnight and that they need their sleep.

Gary said...

How about an antiobscenity ordinance that's strictly enforced? If SS is a total drag for people who can't at least control their tongues, maybe they won't come. I'll happily pay my fine the next time I mutter "s**t I left my glasses in the car" in exchange, and stay away if I can't control myself :)

It's kind of the functional equivalent of those high-pitch screamers that drive away young people.

Jed Sorokin-Altmann said...

How about some respect for the First Amendment, Gary? Expletives have been protected speech since 1971's Supreme Court ruling in Cohen v. California.