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Commentary: Curfew can be Tempered to Downplay Antagonism Between Cops and Kids

By John Douglas

The Grand Jury in the case of Michael Brown’s death has decided not to indict his shooter, Officer Darren Wilson, causing protests around the nation. This decision, which divided the country, has also reopened questions of racial equality, police and community relations and police brutality.

This occurs on the heels of Baltimore City’s own controversial decision, its new curfew law which was implemented in August and is one of the toughest in the nation. Brown’s case shows how dangerous it can be when cops interact with young people and highlights potential problems with Baltimore’s new curfew where police stopped 147 kids during the first two months of the curfew, 126 of them African American.

“The curfew law gives police a reason to stop [teens], takes away burden of reasonable cause for searches,” said Baltimore ACLU lawyer Sonia Kumar. “Officers aren’t used to treating people well in interactions.”

Baltimore is a city known for having bad relations between the community and police. The curfew is likely to make that worse. “The broader culture is one where officers aren’t used to treating people respectfully in interactions or are used to abusing their authority in other ways,” Kumar said.

Race can also be a factor. Eighty-six percent of the kids stopped for curfew violations in Baltimore are black. City College freshman Sam Sheehan said, “race plays a role in where and how the curfew is enforced.” He is white but used to live in a predominantly black area where he noticed there was a larger police presence and a lot more police-community interaction. He believes the curfew enforcement is “unfair treatment,” and will get worse with the new curfew.

But many say the curfew is necessary. District 2 City Councilmember Brandon Scott, who helped pass the new law, knows that there is tension between police and teens in the city. “The relationship is bad, but better,” he said. “I interacted with the police every day in my youth and it’s not as bad as the ‘90s.”

But still, there is a stigma attached to having your kids detained by the police. Tanya Williams, a curfew facilitator, worried about that. “Anytime you have police picking up young people, you raise the suspicions of the community,” she said.

Both Williams and Scott know that having cops pick up kids isn’t the best option. They agree the curfew centers need to have social workers present and should not use old police vans to transport youth anymore. They are aware of the problems, and want to work on them to make the curfew enforcement and centers better.

Yet there’s no easy solution for fixing the decades old problems of police brutality and racial profiling. Jewoine Wilson, a freshman at City College High School, believes the old issues have already caused division which the curfew will make worse.   “If everyone is divided, if the police are against the people there will never be a common ground,” he said.

There is also the problem of criminalizing teens. “The intent is not to criminalize kids but reality is the law is enforced by Baltimore City police,” said Kumar who believes police are likely to abuse their authority. They are the ones who will enforce the law, “not those who passed the bill.”

According to the U.S. Census Bureau the black community accounts for 63 percent of the City population, there’s no reason that 86 percent of the curfew stops should be black youth.

Scott believes that there’s more to the bad relationship than just bad cops, that there are issues on both sides of the “spectrum.” He points out “we’re not going to improve the relationship without having community and police interact.” He himself goes with police to schools and reads to the youth. And he is aware of what is needed beyond the new law: “ground to ground interaction, policy will only help us but won’t fix anything.”

With incidents like the death of Michael Brown fresh on Americas mind, there’s no way to predict how the curfew’s enforcement will affect the relationships of the community. But with people like Scott and Williams ushering in the new curfew, hopefully it can be used to mend the wounds that years of brutality and discrimination have caused.



About Karen Houppert

I'm a journalist and also Associate Director of the MA in Writing Program at Johns Hopkins University. I've been writing about menstruation--and a whole lot of other stuff--since the 1990s.

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