A proposal to enforce a decades-long curfew ordinance was kicked back to committee after Memphis City Council members opted to take a deeper look at the issue during the council’s Tuesday (Oct 18) meeting.
Among council members and their constituents, there were concerns that enforcement could disproportionately affect minorities.
“Almost every time you have law enforcement, you have laws in a predominantly Black community, what happens inevitably is a disparate impact on minorities. What I don’t want to do is, individuals who are essentially just out too late,” said council member JB Smiley Jr. “I think I’m a no on this.”
In addition to the “stain” of contact with the criminal justice system at an early age, Smiley also expressed concerns about changing the focus of the Police Department. Undermanned, the department currently faces a spike in violent crimes, like carjackings and gun violence, for example.
“If we are going to target anything, if we are going to be making anything a high priority, it’s needs to be getting guns off the street, it’s going to be cleaning up blight, it needs to be stopping violent crime, not some youth just out too late,” said Smiley.
The resolution, sponsored by Councilmember Rhonda Logan, asked for the Memphis Police Department to strongly enforce curfews through the Child Curfew Act of 1995.
It also requests the council to collaborate with Mayor Jim Strickland’s administration on a proposal for one or more curfew centers in Memphis, where violators could be held until they were retrieved by parent or another responsible adult.
The council Public Safety Committee, chaired by Logan, is scheduled to reconsider the measure during that committee’s meeting.
The curfew ordinance, officials agree, has not been aggressively enforced, for a variety of reasons. Those reasons include police staffing issues and a reluctance, sparked by juvenile justice reform initiatives, to push juveniles into the criminal justice system, especially for minor offensives.
However, a spike in serious and sometimes violent crimes committed by juveniles, especially vehicle thefts, vehicle burglaries and carjackings, resulted in Logan sponsoring her resolution.
“It’s not targeting young people, it’s in response to the reports of increases in juvenile crime; increase in violent juvenile crime. It’s giving them (police) an option, because right now the only thing we have is to take all of the youth to Juvenile Court,” Logan said in defense of the resolution.
Council member Patrice Robinson said the council should be seeking more information before a sweeping policy change, like curfew enforcement, should take effect.
“My concern is that we don’t ever look at the data around who are the children that are not where they are supposed to be during that curfew time? We’ve got to make decisions based on data. We need to know what age groups actually cause the most problems for us. Are we spending those dollars in the right place?” Robinson said.
The resolution also raised concerns that it puts the cart before the proverbial horse. Memphis currently lacks a late-night drop-off center, or similar resource, to place children who are picked up by officers past curfew.
Many of those youths also don’t have a parent or guardian at home, (a parent or guardian) who can be working third shift during the pre-dawn hours.
There also is a matter of getting accurate information out of the youths. Some lie or are evasive to prevent being brought home. It can take as long as 24 hours to contact a parent or guardian.
“The officer is there with that juvenile and is unable to relinquish that juvenile to the guardian,” said Don Crowe, assistant chief of Police Services. “It is extremely time-consuming, and it takes a patrol officer out of service for an extended period of time, if they cannot identify someone, because it’s our responsibility to make sure that child remains in safe custody.”
With no place to take youths, the resolution gained little support.
Although the resolution asks for a resource center, where the youths could be held, the council members were cool to the idea.
It was suggested the council should collaborate with its counterparts on the Shelby County Commission for a solution.
“We have this entire other $2 billion government across the street that’s responsible for funding juvenile programs, more specifically juvenile justice programs … I’d really rather see this as a joining resolution because they need to be part of this,” said council member Chase Carlisle.
Others on the council wanted to flesh out the resolution before a final vote. Resource centers employed in other similar-sized or larger cities were mentioned. As well as providing a drop-off point, these centers often offer intervention programs, counseling, and other options to better occupy the youth.
“Those centers also provide a number of services, not just to young people, but to parents as well. We are in the process now of doing research.
“We’ve reached out to 10 different cities, so that we can provide sort of a matrix, just to have some comparison… (of) what their solution has been for this issue,” said Memphis Police Chief C.J. Davis.
With the resolution bouncing back to committee, there is an opportunity to think outside of the box for cost-effective solutions.
Some options might be as simple as opening a line of communication within the community.
“We need to figure out what that need is. It may be as simple as trying to get the Y to open a center at night police can take people to,” said council member Jeff Warren. “We’ve been using a Travel Lodge at night for homeless families when they have no place to go. So, we may need to arrange a safe drop-off spot we can just take people …”