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In the wake of recent gang violence, District officials have been searching lately for the best way to deal with a perceived upswing in youth crime. This past summer, though, one juvenile offense was apparently in decline: According to statistics provided by D.C. police, the number of curfew violations plummeted.
In the summer of 2001, D.C. police rang up 130 youth-curfew violations, flagging kids under 17 for being out after midnight, or after 11 p.m. on school nights. In the summer of 2002, the haul rose to 304. But from June through August of this year, police counted only 40 violations.
Fear of getting caught may have motivated some kids to stay indoors, and this year’s soggy weather may have kept others from late-night corner jockeying. But the most likely reason for the unseasonal drop-off in violations is a simple personnel change: Capt. Paula Edmiston, the 1st District’s night-shift supervisor, was reassigned and then took most of the summer off.
When the curfew was born, civilian officials thought imposing an early bedtime was a vital crime-fighting tool. The D.C. Council unanimously approved the curfew measure in 1995, and government attorneys defended the law in federal court for four years before it finally passed judicial muster.
But among the police, Edmiston was one of the few ranking officers who consistently took the curfew seriously. Since the beginning of 2001, about 85 percent of D.C.’s 1,221 total curfew violations were booked in the 1st District on her watch. (The Metropolitan Police Department did not provide statistics for 2000.)
The 1st District, headquartered at 4th Street SW, circumscribes Capitol Hill and includes some of D.C.’s more troubled neighborhoods, such as Potomac Gardens and the Arthur Capper and Carrollsburg Dwellings. It’s also home to at least one major teen hangout, the mall at Union Station. Edmiston says top brass were pushing for more curfew enforcement when she assumed the midnight command in 2000. That first year, she says, her officers processed 407 late-night offenders.
“We figured, Hey, if we really cracked down on that, it would keep kids off the street, and they wouldn’t commit crimes, and they wouldn’t be victims of crime,” says Edmiston. “I don’t know why other districts don’t do it,” she says.
All night-shift patrol officers were instilled with the curfew imperative. Officers would catch kids out late and drive them home if their parents were around, or to the station house if they weren’t. “I even got some!” Edmiston says. If parents didn’t retrieve their children, the youths were transported to the nearby Child and Family Services Agency.
By following through on the processing, Edmiston, a former high-school teacher, was able to keep track of which kids were caught most often. The law stipulates punishments of up to 25 hours of community service for kids and $500 fines for parents who don’t keep their children inside.
The curfew campaign wasn’t always popular among Edmiston’s subordinates. At D.C. Superior Court, she says, officers from other districts would tease them when their curfew cases came up. Curfew violators are “out there if you look for them,” says one 1st District police official. “But red-light runners are out there if you look for them, parking violators are out there if you look for them, everything’s out there if you look for it. The question is if that’s the most worthwhile activity to pursue in the middle of the night.” According to the official, one tactic used to satisfy Edmiston and collect collars was to park outside the Union Station movie theaters until the last shows let out.
Just as summer began, Edmiston was transferred to the midnight shift at the 2nd District, which covers Northwest neighborhoods. But she didn’t take over until the end of August. While she was absent, neither the 1st nor 2nd District recorded a violation.
“Every district, every officer is supposed to enforce the law when they see a violation. Period,” says department spokesperson Sgt. Joe Gentile. “How they go about handling the matter is up to the commander of the district.”
The potential for selective enforcementgoing after minority kids in poor neighborhoods while leaving other kids alonewas a primary reason why the local affiliate of the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) opposed the curfew measure in court. But police statistics are slippery. For one, Gentile says he’s not sure the department’s figures are accurate. (Edmiston says the data short her by scores of catches each year.) In addition, the data record only instances when police file paperwork. Often, citywide curfew enforcement is less formal, such as when police drive up to the curb and threaten kids with the paddy wagon or simply drive kids home without making a fuss. The lack of complete information “frustrates oversight,” says Stephen Block, the local ACLU’s legislative counsel. “We have to know what the officers are doing.”
On I Street NE, in the 5th District, kids hang out on the brick wall fronting the housing blocks. The 5th District has recorded 46 official violations since the beginning of 2001. But the kids say police harass them all the time about being out at night, even when it’s only 9 p.m. “He’ll say, ‘Clear this area.’ We’ll be like, ‘All right,’” says Kevin Robinson, who says he is forced to obey, even though he’s 17. “That’ll be the mean ones,” he says.
And even though the 1st District officially registered zero violations for the summer, in the James Creek Dwellings off Delaware Avenue SW, John, a 16-year-old, says he was picked up on a Saturday night at the end of August, walking home from a friend’s house. “The police car just pulled up. I said, ‘My house is right here!’” The cop drove him the half-block. “Hey, I’m not trying to get arrested,” John says. CP