Seemingly at random, groups of teenagers had begun converging in Philadelphia.
Like other spontaneous gatherings, many of these so-called "flash mobs" were fairly harmless in nature. But others got out of hand. First, there were incidences of shoplifting and pushing. Then, on July 29, upwards of 40 youths got violent in Central City, beating and hospitalizing 59 people. Days later, Philadelphia Mayor Michael Nutter announced emergency changes to the city’s youth curfew, setting earlier time restrictions and specifically targeting neighborhoods where the groups of youth had gathered.
"Who wants to run the risk of a flash mob just running rampant wherever they want?" asks Blondell Reynolds Brown, a Philadelphia city councilor who supports the curfew rule changes.
Philadelphia, like many other cities in the U.S., has had a curfew for youth on its books for years. And just like in those other cities, it doesn’t really work. Researchers who’ve tracked the use of municipal youth curfews have had trouble finding any proof that they cut down crime.
"Most of the research has found that curfews are not effective in reducing crime or promoting public safety," says Mike Males, a researcher who looks at crime rates and municipal curfews in cities throughout California.
Males led a study in Vernon, Connecticut, looking at the city’s youth curfew. He examined 400 citations given to 16- and 17-year-olds in the city for violating curfew and found that in only one or two cases were the juveniles in question involved in any other crime or misdemeanor. "They were just out, playing basketball in parks or coming out of restaurants," says Males. "It’s a very effective tool to waste police time."
Males argues that despite the recent attention, these disruptive flash mobs are pretty rare. He says that the emergency changes enacted in August that tightened rules on two neighborhoods were thinly-veiled racial profiling.
"Essentially what’s happening is it’s targeting black kids," says Males. "Let’s just be blunt here."
Reynolds Brown says the city council is working on amendments that would have graduated curfew times for older teens, and also to extend the new hours to every neighborhood in the city – admittedly to try to erase the air of discrimination.
Everett Gillison, the city’s deputy mayor for public safety says it’s not about punishing people, but protecting them.
"The curfew is much more than a crime issue. It’s a safety issue first and foremost," Gillison says. "We want to try to give parents some standards that will keep their children safe."
He expects the plan to go up for a vote this week. Included is a provision that the effectiveness of the program is reviewed after a two-year run.
But as University of Central Florida criminal justice professor Kenneth Adams notes, whether they work or not is often beside the point. He says that they’re politically popular tools, even without the evidence to back them up.
"For most people the efficacy of curfews is self-evident," Adams says.
He worries, though, that curfew rules like these are often used by police to stop and interrogate juveniles. "They’re another arrow in the quiver," he says. But the high profile nature of the crimes in Philadelphia tend to push those concerns into the background.
"When police and politicians feel that pressure, they feel like they need to act. And there’s not really a lot they can do," says Adams. "In that sense, [a curfew has] everything going for it, except effectiveness."
One thing they do have going for them, though, is money. The fines from these citations can be a revenue stream for cities. Philadelphia’s fines would start at $75, and go up in the case of delinquency. In other cities, the fines are even steeper.
The city of Ville Platte, Louisiana, has recently angered citizens by enacting a citywide curfew on walking after dark. As a result, people in this town of about 7,000 had been repeatedly cited by police since the curfew went into effect in February, with each citation carrying a fine of $200. That fine was often coupled with another $200 fine for violating another city ordinance requiring people out at night to wear "reflective clothing," which the language of the ordinance informed citizens they could procure at WalMart.
"That’s actually in the law," says Justin Harrison, a staff attorney at the ACLU Foundation of Louisiana, which filed a complaint against the curfew to the city. The curfew has been temporarily suspended. But in the meantime, dozens of people had been cited nearly every night for violating one or both of those ordinances. Harrison says local witnesses counted 30, 40 or even 50 citations a night.
"Since February that’s hundreds of arrests, well into the tens or even hundreds of thousands of dollars," Harrison says.
He argues that beyond it’s unconstitutionality, the curfew is simply not effective in Ville Platte. "Clearing the streets isn’t going to stop somebody who’s intent on breaking into a house or stealing a car," Harrison says.
And as Males argues, curfews like these may in fact be increasing crime. "The presence of law-abiding citizens enhances safety," he says. "Curfews create a vacuum. There are emptier public spaces that are more of a threat to public safety."
In Philadelphia, Reynolds Brown says this issue is something to consider. Still, she argues that the curfew can be one part of a more holistic plan to reduce crime, improve safety and provide recreational opportunities for the city’s youth.
"There’s no silver bullet," Reynolds Brown says. "But this is a vehicle for gathering the attention of young people to help them understand that in all stages of life there are consequences to their actions."
This photo is courtesy of Flickr user SanFranAnnie.