It's after 1:30 a.m. on a recent Friday night, and Baltimore's juvenile curfew center is buzzing. One by one or together in groups, children who are out beyond the midnight weekend curfew are being brought in by police. In a side room where records are checked, the youngest strike up a conversation.
"How you get caught?" the 10-year-old boy asks.
"I walked to the store," the shy 8-year-old seated to his left says. "As soon as I got out, police said 'Come here.' "
Asked by a reporter if he is scared to be walking around his East Baltimore neighborhood so late at night, the 8-year-old, who says his name is Khalil, shakes his head no. "There's a lot of kids out," he replies.
Baltimore's curfew center began four years ago — a collaborative effort among police, the school system and social services — to get kids off the street and away from potential harm.
Their work has taken on a new urgency as other cities grapple with so-called "flash robs," most notably Philadelphia, which moved up its curfew to 9 p.m. in hopes of combating large, roving groups of young people who caused mayhem there.
Though city officials said they have not seen any evidence of "flash robs" in Baltimore, there appears to have been at least one incident that fits the bill: Records show that on successive nights, groups of 10 and 15 youths robbed a 7-Eleven on Hanover Street in Federal Hill in July.
The term is a play on "flash mobs," a phrase that originally referred to people who used social media to flood an area and break into spontaneous song or dance — innocuous pranks. This summer, pranks have evolved into something more serious, with authorities saying that social media tools may have been used to coordinate crimes in Philadelphia, Milwaukee, Chicago and the Washington area.
More broadly, the reports appear to indicate a trend of a youth crime involving large groups who use their numbers to overwhelm retailers and law enforcement officers, though not necessarily using social media.
Retailers who've been targeted say they're trying to figure out how to weather such attacks.
"We are known for a comprehensive training on what to do when there is a robbery, but this is a little different than a robbery," 7-Eleven spokeswoman Margaret Chabris said regarding the Federal Hill incidents. "This kind of mass theft is relatively new."
In April, a group of at least 100 teenagers roamed the streets around the Inner Harbor, City Hall, the Convention Center and the 1st Mariner Arena for more than two hours as police used megaphones to order them to leave. At least one teen was stabbed and there was reported property damage. Asked what they were doing, some teens said, "It's the day after Easter." And a series of street robberies and unprovoked attacks by smaller groups of teens — typically three to five — around the Inner Harbor and Mount Vernon caused alarm two years ago.
"I don't think we've seen anything to the scale that we would call a 'mob,' though we've dealt with mischievous juveniles for years," Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake said during a brief visit to the curfew center a few weeks ago.
Rawlings-Blake said she has talked to Police Commissioner Frederick H. Bealefeld III about making sure officials are monitoring camera footage for swelling groups of young people, while Sheryl Goldstein, director of the mayor's office on criminal justice, said there have been discussions with prosecutors about whether authorities could preemptively pursue charges against someone attempting to stage a "flash mob."
Though police departments have increasingly used social media to communicate with the public, few have units or officers who are savvy in monitoring it for crime patterns. Rawlings-Blake says that should change.
"We don't have to get to the point that we're responding to a mob if we are vigilant and following traffic patterns, looking for that kind of sign," Rawlings-Blake said.
At the curfew center, officials hope to get to the heart of the issues that drive juvenile crime. Records are kept for the number of times youth are brought there, and new arrivals are checked for juvenile warrants or prior contacts with the city's social services agency.
Children snack on Lunchables in a waiting room — marked with a sign that says "No profanity, no profanity, no profanity, no profanity" — as they wait for their parents to pick them up.
"They're everywhere out there tonight," says an Eastern District police officer as he drops off the first curfew-breakers of the night.
A group of girls -— all wearing short skirts, pearls and makeup — is brought in. They say they were out for a sleepover. Another girl, for no apparent reason, is combative and refuses to follow directions. She is handcuffed and hauled to the Juvenile Justice Center.
Debbie Thomas, an executive assistant for student support and safety, volunteers her time at the center. "They don't need to be out on the streets," she says. "The streets aren't safe. You can't control what happens, but there's a semblance of control if they're at home."
As the children carry on and tease one another, she interrupts to ask each one where they go to school.
"Just so you know, I'm calling your principals," she tells them, reminding that the new school year is right around the corner. "That's not a good way to go in."
One of the 15-year-olds brushes her off. "Man, my principal ain't gonna say nothing," he says. "They already know who Southside is. Southside all day!"
Outside, a woman dressed in a skimpy outfit appropriate for a night of clubbing arrives to pick up one of the boys. "If he's picked up again, you're going to get a citation," a staff member tells her. "I'm not his mother," she says dismissively.
When 8-year-old Khalil is brought in, he scratches his face nervously as Thomas crouches down and speaks to him in a calm, motherly voice.
Later, he will be taken along with the other boys under age 12 to the social services office, which will begin an inquiry.
"It's OK," she tells him. "We'll figure it out."Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun