City leaders divided on teen curfew

Aldermen and community leaders agreed Wednesday night at a Board of Aldermen committee meeting that steps must be taken to curb youth violence around the city, but opinion was markedly divided on whether the curfew is the right answer.

The curfew proposal — which would require anyone 17 years old or younger to stay off city streets between 10 p.m. and 6 a.m. — drew impassioned testimony from eight officials and community members over the course of the three-hour hearing. Support for the curfew was mixed, and city residents in attendance seemed to have doubts about whether a curfew would be the best way to address youth violence in New Haven.

After the four sponsors of the curfew, which was proposed on Sept. 5, spoke in support of the proposal, the Board heard testimony from New Haven Police Department Chief Francisco Ortiz and Superintendent of Schools Reginald Mayo, both of whom raised reservations about the curfew but said it merited discussion.

“I’ve got some grave concerns,” Mayo said. “How do you enforce [the curfew]?”

Mayo said he thinks parents and extended families need to take more responsibility for making sure children are not on the streets late at night, but he said tough economic conditions, which force many parents to work two jobs or night shifts, are a large part of the problem. Mayo said with a police-enforced curfew, kids out past 10 p.m. may begin to fear police and run from them to avoid being fined.

Ortiz, who said he feels the “jury is still out” on the curfew proposal, said his department and the Board of Young Adult Police Commissioners are both divided over the issue. A curfew should be a last resort, he said, and it could divert officers from other responsibilities. The curfew could also lead to racial profiling, which might diminish trust between youths and officers, he said.

But Ortiz praised the Board for fostering dialogue and encouraged the city and community agencies to offer more resources for youths, such as wraparound services, in which community centers or clinics are open throughout the night to give kids a safe place to go.

A city-wide curfew could cause legal problems for the city, said Roger Vann, the executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Connecticut, and would almost certainly attract lawsuits.

“If we’re really here to talk about root causes [of youth violence] … let’s not waste time on potentially unconstitutional proposals,” said Vann, whose his testimony drew bursts of applause from the audience.

But New Haven Corporation Counsel Thomas Ude said the Second Circuit Court of Appeals, under whose jurisdiction New Haven lies, has interpreted curfews to be constitutional as long as the curfew’s goals are reasonably weighed against residents’ freedom of travel. Nevertheless, the last local youth curfew to be challenged — in Vernon, Conn. — was overturned by that Circuit Court. Ward 2 Alderwoman Joyce Chen ’01, a co-sponsor of the proposed ordinance, said she fears legal concerns may discourage other aldermen from supporting the proposal. Chen is co-sponsoring the proposal along with Ward 23 Alderman Yusuf Shah, Ward 24 Alderwoman Elizabeth McCormack and Ward 30 Alderman Michelle Edmonds Sepulveda.

Under the terms of the proposal, offenders would be fined between $75 and $99 for violating the curfew. On Wednesday, the board discussed the possibility of allowing community service in lieu of the fine for low-income households.

“It’s really not about the fine,” Shah said. “The intervention is the most important piece.”

Mayor John DeStefano Jr. said in September he was hesitant to support the curfew proposal but was open to discussion about it. In the mid-1990s, he opposed a similar proposal for a youth curfew. DeStefano could not be reached for comment on Wednesday.

Wednesday’s discussion — which also included a social worker, a pastor, a parent organizer and a former gang leader — will be followed by four more Board meetings this fall to discuss the curfew proposal.

On Nov. 29 and Nov. 30, the Board will hear testimony from city youths at Hillhouse and Wilbur Cross High Schools, respectively, while a public hearing and committee deliberations are to follow in early December. Aldermen decided at a meeting last Wednesday that two meetings with city youth were necessary because of turf wars between neighborhoods — an issue that could still inhibit youths from showing up, said Ward 26 Alderman Sergio Rodriguez.

Despite the problems raised about the proposal, Chen said, it still is a viable solution to the city’s youth crime problem, but that more public input is needed.

“It’s probably a little bit premature to think about what we’re going to do,” she said. “It sounds like people are willing to consider the basics of this proposal but in what form, that’s another question … Most definitely it’s not going to pass exactly the way it was worded.”

The curfew proposal follows a violent summer in New Haven. Two 13-year-olds, both apparently innocent bystanders, were killed in separate shootings, allegedly the result of neighborhood gang violence. On Aug. 30, a 17-year-old, a suspect in three other city murder cases, was shot to death.

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