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It’s after midnight. Can someone tell me where the juvenile delinquents hang out?
By Ta-Nehisi Coates
Sgt. Sam Delisi and I spot our quarry while turning onto Pennsylvania Avenue near Foggy Bottom. After blatantly whipping a souped-up Caddy with hydraulic suspension through a red light, the suspect begins an illegal U-turn. Delisi hits the gas and throttles through the vacant intersection.
My eyes grow big with anticipation. We’ve only been patrolling for an hour, and already it looks as if we’ve nailed our target.
Delisi catches the offender in mid-maneuver. “You know you can’t do that,” says Delisi, pulling up alongside her car.
“I know,” replies a pubescent-looking female. “I’m just trying to get back to Georgetown. I’m new around here.” The rest of the car is filled with young women who giggle as Delisi directs them back down to M Street. Meanwhile, I’m waiting for Delisi to get to the heart of the matter. But it’s only after he finishes the niceties that the officer asks the question all D.C. law enforcement wants to know: “Hey,” he says, “how old are you?”
“I’m 20,” the young woman replies. Delisi nods and pulls off, heading north toward Dupont Circle.
“I don’t usually bother with carding,” Delisi explains as we drive away. He’s trying to put the best face on a slightly awkward situation. Enthusiasm from One Judiciary Square about the city’s new juvenile curfew notwithstanding, most cops would rather, say, be filling out triplicate inventory forms for new department-issue sweat socks than spend their nights checking IDs on teens lost in Foggy Bottom. Though some officers have called the curfew a waste of time that turns police into glorified baby sitters, so far it’s the teens themselves who are sparing Delisi and his colleagues this professional ignominy: Just three days after the advent of the District’s new curfew law, the police can’t seem to find any lawless youngsters to pull off the streets.
Officially, the curfew mandates that kids age 16 and under be in the house by 11 p.m. Monday through Thursday, and by 12 p.m. Friday and Saturday. “The curfew kind of works both ways,” says Delisi. “It can take an officer off the street, and that’s not good. But [the curfew] also keeps the kids out of trouble.” It’s just that as of tonight, cops in Delisi’s 2nd District haven’t found any kids yet. “The count, right now, is zero,” says Delisi.
Me, I’m undeterred. I’ve read all the press and the endorsing editorials. I’ve seen the quotes from the mayor, several councilmembers, and law-and-order pundits nationwide stating how the curfew will save the kids from themselves. They say it’s a new day in the war on juvenile crime. And I want to be there when it happens. I’m dreaming of police cruisers hauling off 5-foot Tupac wannabes by the dozen. I want the private-schoolers in Georgetown to have their nights ended by a phone call from 2nd District brass to their mothers. I want Delisi to send ’em to bed without their supper.
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Unfortunately, our night patrolling teenage Dodge City is pretty damn dull. We’ve stopped to help slim-jim a German family back into a car that they’ve locked themselves out of. We’ve investigated a report of some kids skinny-dipping in a private pool, only to come up empty. We’ve even canvassed a few local billiards joints where it’s known that the owners don’t card. Our last chance comes up short when we stop a young dude who’s a dead ringer for Steve Urkel. “I’m 21,” he tells Delisi. “And yes, I’ve heard about the curfew.” Delisi declines to card the dude, and we drive off.
Once you get outclassed by Urkel, it’s time to call it a night. Delisi and I head back to 2nd District headquarters. For all our investigative vigor, the gods have rewarded us with a goose egg in the kids column.
Are the youth of Washington really that quiet? The next day, I start to wonder whether the cop was slowing me down—after all, they say, these days the tykes are trained to spot cop cars five miles away. My unassuming beat-up black Nissan might just be another story. This time I bring a photographer, hoping to get photos of packs of 13-year-olds on standing on corners and up to no good.
Instead of doing the Georgetown-Dupont thing, I decide to hit some of the District’s less traveled territory. We pull roll up on to Martin Luther King Jr. Avenue SE around midnight. I drive slowly up the street, eyes cocked for juvenile loiterers. But on this warm night, the block looks like a ghost town, except for a pack of middle-aged drunkards, sitting in front of a closed-down corner store and sipping from brown-bagged battles. I think about asking them if they’ve seen any teenagers—but quickly think better of it.
We head over to Alabama Avenue and get the same result. The only people out and about are a couple of young women waiting for a bus. (Note to Chief Ramsey: Why not pull Delisi off the kids beat and have him arrest those slowpoke bus drivers?) They look over 30, so I resist the urge to call 911.
The thought of coming up empty again is starting to get to me. But I can’t believe that kids would really choose some home—maybe even with parents present—over a chance to stand on the corner shooting the breeze on a weekend night. I decide to head up to Northwest. I get my first bite at a 7-Eleven at 14th Street and Rhode Island Avenue. I’m inside grabbing a soda when I spot three miniature hardrocks bopping up 14th Street. I step outside and reach for my handy pen and pad.
“Hey you!” I yell. The trio turn around to see if I’m really calling for them.
“Yeah, you guys!” I add. The apparent leader of the bunch consults with his comrades and then walks slowly toward me.
“Yeah?” he asks. I introduce myself as a curious young reporter and ask him if he minds answering a few questions. The dude nods his head.
“You heard about D.C.’s new curfew,” I ask.
“I don’t know what you’re talking about,” he replies. I think he’s playing dumb, but I’m determined to get what I need.
“You mind telling me how old you are?” I ask.
“I’m 19. What am I, breaking this curfew?” he asks.
“How about your friends?” I reply.
“Eighteen and 19,” he responds. I resist the urge to card, bid the kid good night, and head back to my car. “Did you get one?” the photographer asks. I shake my head disappointedly and head up 14th Street into Columbia Heights. I think to myself that maybe the kids have decided to toss out their night-owl pasts now that D.C.’s courageous lawmakers have slapped a curfew on them. Or maybe, like most people, they have to get up tomorrow.