On Friday, Baltimore instituted one of the nation's most restrictive curfew laws. The city became a police state to some and a place that is finally cracking down on problem youths to others. For months, the proposal to change the curfew law was met with heated discussions at community meetings, letters to the editor in favor of the changes and dissenting letters against them.
Under the city's previous curfew, unchaperoned children under 17 had to be home by 11 p.m. during the week and midnight on weekends. On Friday that changed to 9 p.m. for children under 14. Ages 14 to 16 are required to be home by 10 on school nights and 11 p.m. on weekends.
If a parent or guardian is with them, children can be out as long as they want. School, work, religious and recreational activities are excluded. Parents of children found in violation could face fines of between $30 and $500 — but officials say those could be waived under certain conditions.
Earlier Friday, Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake visited the Lillian Jones Recreation Center in West Baltimore, one of the city's two Youth Connections Centers where curfew violators were to be taken until parents or guardians could arrive. The mayor watched as children in the center shot baskets in the recreation room while four kids played in the computer lab.
Rawlings-Blake said she expected the night scene to be much the same when children are brought into the center — a place of comfort for kids and not a holding cell.
The American Civil Liberties Union and others have raised concerns, saying the new law could allow police to stop and search more young black people without any criminal suspicion. But Rawlings-Blake and Baltimore police officials say they don't expect anything to change in how they enforce the new curfew compared with how the city has enforced the old law for 20 years.
The police will focus on children who are in dangerous situations or teens who are engaged in suspicious or criminal activity, she said. She said she expects police to treat all youths with "dignity and respect" when they interact with them on the streets.
Baltimore police spokesman Lt. Eric Kowalczyk said no special patrol cars or units were being sent out into the neighborhoods Friday night to look for young scofflaws. City officials say police won't chase children who attempt to flee after curfew stops. If youths don't have IDs, officers can question them to determine their age or bring them to curfew centers where school officials can check records.
City officials say kids sitting outside their homes or friends' homes were not to be bothered — as long as a guardian is in charge. "They can be sitting outside," said Angela Johnese, director of the Mayor's Office on Criminal Justice. "The goal is to have them being supervised."
On the dark Gay Street neighborhood blocks of East Baltimore minutes before 9 p.m., a large group of children stood outside rowhouses, laughing and listening to music.
"They should be in the house," said Myketa Watts, 19, a new mother, who kept a watchful eye on some of them. "All of them should. Stuff happens. These streets aren't safe."
Next to her was her brother, Jordan Wills, 13, who said the curfew seems reasonable to him. He said he planned on playing his PlayStation 3 into the night.
Children around them said they understood why the curfew went into effect. They all knew that 3-year-old McKenzie Elliott had been shot and killed by a stray bullet last week during the daylight, and they said they understood that night could be more dangerous.
"I feel that we should have a curfew because all these people doing bad things to kids like a 3-year-old got shot, so it's a good thing," said Shakeira Thompson, 10.
"I think people should have a curfew because people around here snatch kids and stuff," added her friend Kiyara Johnson, 10.