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Hundreds of Kids Arrested on an Unproven Hunch

Curfew sweeps have become a major police priority in areas like City Heights and southeastern San Diego. But a VOSD analysis challenges whether this new approach lives up to its big billing.

 

In March 2010, as teenagers roamed City Heights’ streets, a swarm of cops gathered at a nearby elementary school, checked their watches and prepared to strike.

At 10 p.m., the cops spilled across the neighborhood and arrested every minor violating the city’s curfew law. When they ran out of handcuffs, police used plastic twisty ties.

Police trucked two boys walking down University Avenue back to the elementary school, a home base for the operation, and eventually released them to their parents. That night, 55 other kids followed in the same footsteps.

It was a typical curfew sweep in City Heights and part of a dramatic rise in curfew enforcement by the San Diego Police Department. Police began conducting regular sweeps in 2008 and have since expanded their use to much of the city’s urban core.

In these neighborhoods alone, police have more than tripled curfew arrests in the last five years, forcing hundreds of more children to pay fines, participate in weeks-long diversion courses or fight police in court. And all of it’s been done on an unproven hunch.

When pushed to justify the arrests, police and elected leaders have claimed the sweeps are responsible for a recent drop in crime. They cite isolated crime statistics or anecdotal stories, but never an analysis of whether the program has actually been effective. No analysis has ever been done.

Proponents have argued their program saves lives and prevents kids from becoming victims of violent crime. They’ve also argued it prevents kids from becoming perpetrators of crime by pulling them from a dangerous environment and educating them about the risks of staying out late.

But an analysis of juvenile crime statistics by voiceofsandiego.org challenges whether either of these claims are true. Neighborhoods without the sweeps have reported greater drops in crime in the last five years than those with them.

VOSD reached that surprising conclusion by examining the two metrics of juvenile crime often cited by the program’s proponents: the number of violent crime victims and the number of juvenile arrests police made during curfew hours.

Where regular curfew sweeps have happened for at least the past two years, police reported a 47 percent decline in victims in the last five years. Where they haven’t happened, police reported an additional 17 point decrease.

An analysis of felony arrests during curfew hours showed a similar trend. Neighborhoods with the sweeps reported substantially smaller drops in arrests than those without them.

We didn’t compare just San Diego neighborhoods to each other. We looked at curfew enforcement here and the entire state. What we found: While police across the state have moved away from curfew enforcement, they’ve reported equal or greater drops in crime compared to San Diego.

We examined numerous ways that police track crime and adjusted our comparisons to make sure the trends we found weren’t isolated. In every instance, the numbers raised questions about the effectiveness of the sweeps at reducing crime.

Proponents of the sweeps have been saying for years the program reduces juvenile crime. When provided our findings, police, residents and elected leaders stood behind the program but conceded the need for a closer inspection of its effectiveness.

“It’s an eye-opener,” said Marti Emerald, chairwoman of the City Council’s public safety committee. “I want to talk to police and find out why crime is going down at a higher rate in other places.”

Criminologists and law enforcement officials have pondered that basic question for decades and remain just as puzzled today. They often say poverty is responsible for more crime, but the strength of even that connection has been questioned recently.

Researchers widely believed that crime shared an inverse relationship with the economy. If people had more money, the theory suggested people would commit fewer crimes because they didn’t need to steal or hurt others for survival.

But the nationwide economic collapse in 2008 threw a wrench in that idea. Though the economy tanked and unemployment spiked, crime continued to fall nationwide and in San Diego.

The Rise of Curfew Sweeps

File photo by Sam Hodgson
Two young girls watch a Scooby Doo cartoon projected on the wall of the Cherokee Point Elementary cafeteria after they are arrested during a March 2010 curfew sweep in City Heights.

 

During a City Council meeting two years ago, Councilman Todd Gloria called the curfew sweeps program “city government at our best.” Aside from making neighborhoods safer, he touted them as a unique collaboration between police officers, school officials, social service providers and community volunteers.

During each sweep, cops flood entire neighborhoods and arrest children out past 10 p.m. Some kids may be suspected gang members, sex trafficking victims or runaways. Others may simply be leaving a store, walking home or playing soccer in a park when the squad car pulls up next to them.

All are driven to a detention area, usually a school or a church, and matched with their parents and social services. If eligible kids complete a four-to-six week diversion course, they can avoid a fine and clear their record.

Though residents and police officers in southeastern San Diego are credited with creating the collaborative program now used today, what initiated the idea appears to be a mystery.

Proponents often say the program started in response to the murder of two teenagers during curfew hours, but that incident happened four months after the first curfew sweep in the neighborhood.

Even Capt. Tony McElroy, who oversees the police division that developed the program, isn’t sure where the idea came from. He only recalls a spike in gang violence in the summer of 2008 and the community scrambling to respond.

Somehow police got the idea to conduct regular curfew sweeps in coordination with social service providers and volunteers, and McElroy said police soon noticed a drop in assaults involving kids.

“For a while there we had no assaults on youth,” McElroy said. “It was working for us.”

Then tragedy struck in December 2008. Monique Palmer, 17, and Michael Taylor, 15, were gunned down after leaving a party in Valencia Park. Their murders rocked a community already struggling to overcome gang violence and hit close to McElroy’s heart.

Palmer was a member of McElroy’s youth advisory board. The captain knew Taylor through the teen’s grandmother.

In the community, residents say the deaths rallied people around curfew sweeps because the incidents were an extreme example of the crimes they aimed to prevent and gave them an avenue to become more actively involved in policing their neighborhood.

“I wouldn’t still be doing it if I didn’t think it was helpful,” McElroy said. “I don’t know what’s it’s done for keeping our kids safe, but it’s bringing people closer together.”

‘I Love That You’re Looking’

File photo by Sam Hodgson
SDPD Lt. Natalie Stone checks the identification of a man in a parked car during a March 2010 curfew sweep in City Heights. The man was over 18, so Stone didn’t arrest him for violating the city’s curfew law.

 

When pushed to explain falling crime, San Diego’s police and elected leaders have often cited the sweeps as a major factor. When provided the results of VOSD’s analysis, they were quick to defend their program.

Asst. Police Chief Boyd Long, who oversees patrol operations, said he believes curfew sweeps deter crime and pointed to the reduction in juvenile victims in areas with them. Still, he acknowledged more analysis is needed.

“We are going to take a good hard look at it,” Long said after reviewing our findings. “I love that you’re looking at the numbers because I haven’t.”

Asked why the Police Department hasn’t evaluated the impact of more than tripling curfew arrests in the last five years, Long responded, “That’s a good question that I don’t have an answer to.”

City Council President Tony Young, who represents southeastern neighborhoods, said it’s unfair to compare crime in his area and other communities because they don’t have the same underlying issues, such as a decades-long history of gang violence.

Young argued southeastern San Diego needs additional efforts like curfew sweeps to make a dent in crime. He believes that without them, crime may have decreased by a smaller margin or increased.

“It might raise questions,” Young said of our analysis. “I’ve learned it’s dangerous to make decisions solely on numbers.”

Dana Brown is a community youth organizer who has volunteered for almost every curfew sweep in City Heights. She similarly rejected any comparison between the area and others, saying they are demographically different.

“If you drive through La Jolla, it’s a completely different feeling,” Brown said. “That’s apples and oranges. Maybe it’s even apples and potatoes.”

While Young and Brown both raise valid concerns about comparing neighborhoods, our analysis looked at much larger areas to minimize the impact of evaluating isolated populations.

Brown, for example, cited La Jolla as a stark contrast to City Heights. But the area where police conduct curfew sweeps also includes downtown neighborhoods, where many residents own upscale condos, and tony neighborhoods like Kensington and Talmadge.

Police also face gang problems outside the city’s urban core. In the last five years, police reported more juvenile victims of violent crime in Mira Mesa and San Ysidro than nearly all other neighborhoods.

Both Young and Brown believe the curfew sweeps program has reduced crime, but Brown also said the program is worthwhile even if it hasn’t. She said it’s built positive relationships between residents and police.

Other proponents argued the program was still beneficial because it identified at-risk youth and connected them with social services they might not otherwise receive. Most youth arrested during curfew sweeps are referred to diversion programs instead of court, according to a sampling of statistics provided by police.

“I’m supportive of providing as much assistance to as many as possible,” said Pastor Harry Cooper, who was chairman of the city’s gang commission when it endorsed the program. “I don’t know that it reduces crime, but it definitely increases support for an at-risk population.”

Not everyone supports the program. Margaret Dooley-Sammuli of the American Civil Liberties Union questioned the long-term value of curfew sweeps. She said they can alienate youth and worsen an entire neighborhood’s relationship with police.

Dooley-Sammuli worries that arresting kids for low-level offenses will implant a negative image of law enforcement. For some children, the curfew sweep may be their first time in handcuffs.

She’s also concerned about the specific population police have chosen to target. They’re not kids in Point Loma or Serra Mesa. They’re mainly inner-city youth of varying ethnicities and socio-economic conditions who live in high-crime areas.

“The disproportionate criminalization of people of color and people living in poverty is very troubling,” Dooley-Sammuli wrote in an email. “This can easily have the effect of criminalizing a whole generation of young people.”

A Broader Look at Curfew Sweeps

File photo by Sam Hodgson
SDPD Officer Shelly Olson briefs community members about how they will operate the Cherokee Point Elementary cafeteria as a makeshift detention facility during a March 2010 curfew sweep in City Heights.

 

Dan Macallair, executive director of the Center on Juvenile and Criminal Justice, studied the impact of curfew laws across California in 1999 and said our findings support the same conclusion he reached back then.

“The evidence on it, in terms of what it claims to do and what it actually does, is just not there,” Macallair said. “If the goal is to reduce crime, they don’t do that.”

Most studies about curfew enforcement have compared crime between cities with and without curfew laws. Almost uniformly, these studies have found little-to-no evidence that curfews reduce crime.

However, a smaller body of recent research has focused on the impact of increased curfew enforcement like the program in San Diego. A 2005 study of crime in Dallas found greater enforcement had deterred gang violence and potentially had a greater impact in reducing crime victims. Federal law enforcement officials called the results promising, but not conclusive.

Dana Nurge is a professor of criminal justice at San Diego State University and has been a technical adviser to the city’s gang commission. She’s been observing the curfew sweeps program and for years has urged police to study whether it’s worked.

Nurge said our analysis raises doubt about the program’s impact but further research is needed. “They clearly need to evaluate this program,” she said. “It’s been needed from the get go and it hasn’t happened.”

Keegan Kyle is a news reporter for voiceofsandiego.org. He writes about local government, creates infographics and handles the Fact Check Blog. What should he write about next?

Please contact him directly at keegan.kyle@voiceofsandiego.org or 619.550.5668. You can also find him on Twitter (@keegankyle) and Facebook.

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