A community forum on Baltimore’s amended youth curfew law on July 1 at Morgan State University drew a response from participants vacillating between supportive and suspicious. While none of the community members who spoke at the forum criticized the idea that children should be inside by a certain time of night, their questions to the gathered city officials expressed an underlying suspicion that the measure would likely increase negative interactions between police and Black youth.
The forum was attended by Baltimore City Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake, Baltimore City Police Commissioner Anthony Batts, Councilman Brandon Scott, and Director of the Mayor’s Office on Criminal Justice Angela Johnese. All of the city officials present repeatedly emphasized that the curfew measure would not result in arrests of youth, or in criminal records, and that the law was only intended for the protection of vulnerable young persons. “Those same young children that you see out during the summer time, are the same ones you see out with no coats in the winter time, so we have to do something for these young people,” said Scott, the councilmember who introduced the amended curfew measure to the City Council.
Community members were in broad agreement that children need to be protected, but there was concern that police might not be the best option for providing that protection to this population. Two women who spoke during the forum, Melissa Bagley and Fatima Wilkerson, mentioned witnessing police officers in what appeared to them as full S.W.A.T. gear descend on groups of children riding their bicycles at night in Baltimore City.
Bagley, recently elected to the Democratic Central Committee in the 45th District, and a mother of five boys ranging from age seven to 16, said she was initially concerned that the curfew would serve as a gateway into the criminal justice system for youth, but that the responses from city representatives helped allay those concerns. She added she now views the measure as an opportunity for partnership between the police and the community to help young people. “I was impressed by the fact that the Internal Affairs [officers accompanying Batts at the forum], when they heard my concern, they immediately escorted me out and started taking down that information, taking my personal information, so that they could follow up,” said Bagley.
Wilkerson, on the other hand, remained skeptical of the police’s ability to engage children in a manner more befitting a social worker. “I think that what’s ideal and what’s reality are two totally different things and I’m not sure if the panel is aware or if they are just ignoring the realities of the interactions between police officers and especially young African-American males in Baltimore City,” said Wilkerson, mother of two boys, age 12 and 15, who is often called in at night for her work in a hospital operating room.
According to Dr. Natasha Pratt-Harris, a sociologist at Morgan State University and an expert in juvenile justice issues, Wilkerson’s concerns are not unwarranted. Pratt-Harris noted that empirical data show young people of color are more likely to be cited for curfew violations. “The enforcement of the new curfew law will undoubtedly increase contact between young people and the police,” wrote Pratt-Harris. “One of the realities of the enforcement of curfew laws is that the police have been given a green light to approach anyone who appears to be under age.”
The city officials present seemed sincere in their belief that the curfew law would ultimately be to the benefit of vulnerable young persons, but there was a tendency to deal in extremes that undermined their arguments. “When you hold parents accountable, when you let parents know, ‘We see you, we know that you’re not doing what you need to be doing, you can’t hang in the club while your kids are hanging in the street,’ they figure it out. If they can’t watch them somebody does, but somebody has to be responsible for our kids,” said Rawlings-Blake at one point.
Wilkerson, however, had a different perspective on the ability of some parents to constantly monitor their children, noting that while she is fortunate to have a support system to assist with her kids, not everyone does. “How do you penalize someone for working?” Wilkerson said. “How do you penalize someone who can’t always be with their children? How do you penalize a child for living in an urban environment?”
Devon Brown, former CEO of Taharka Bros. Ice Cream in Baltimore City, was present at the forum and convinced that Batts was serious about ensuring police interaction with youth over the curfew remain respectful and professional. He added, however, that he remained a bit skeptical of how enforcement would play out.
“It’s just wait and see,” said Brown. “A little skeptical, but it takes everybody from businesses to churches to school to everyone to help make opportunities for our children.”
For Dr. Celeste Chavis, a professor of engineering at Morgan State University, the manner of enforcement, not the motivation behind the policy, remained her ultimate concern. “They kind of focused mostly on the motivation side and not really on the implementation which is where I think most of the issues are going to come into play,” said Chavis.