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Curfew in effect, but enforcement starts cautiously


Minutes after Baltimore's new curfew law took effect, 17-year-old Torrey Nixon sat on her aunt's front stoop in Rosemont, watching her two young cousins and wondering where the police were.

There was no police crackdown. No officers rounding up youngsters from street corners and hauling them away.

"The police should be out in force on the first night to show the kids they aren't playing," Ms. Nixon said late Thursday night. Young drug dealers had just left the corner near Tiffany Square -- named after a 6-year-old girl who was shot to death three years ago and who became a citywide symbol of young crime victims -- she said.

"If the cops don't take it seriously, then the people of Baltimore won't either," Ms. Nixon said.

The lack of a show of force was by design, the mayor and police commissioner said yesterday. The curfew -- which was highly touted by the City Council several months ago and is now getting headlines as far away as Rome -- will be selectively enforced, they said.

"This is all about trying to prevent people from being victimized," Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke said at a news conference yesterday. "We don't want to fill our jails with curfew violators. We have bigger problems."

Before aggressively enforcing the law, which includes fines and jail terms for parents of violators, officers need to be trained and parents need to be educated, the mayor and Police Commissioner Thomas C. Frazier said.

The curfew, which Mr. Schmoke signed into law Thursday night, forbids youths under age 17 from being on the streets after 11 p.m. on weekdays and midnight on Fridays and Saturdays. For (( now, officers will concentrate on children 13 and under.

"We believe that the prudent course is to focus on the youngest of these kids right now, until we can do more training for everybody, not just the police officers," the mayor said.

The law could be enforced immediately, but Mr. Schmoke said he suspects that "officers will be a little hesitant to use it until the actual training guidelines have been presented." That could take up to 10 days.

Even then, officers will have wide discretion, Mr. Frazier said. For example, a teen-ager sitting on church steps should not be arrested, but a 12-year-old repeatedly seen on a drug corner would draw an officer's attention.

That policy is partly an acknowledgment that officers are swamped by calls for more serious crimes. But the mayor said he also is concerned that the law could be abused by police officers using it to stop and question teens.

"I speak to a lot of young people in our community, particularly young African-American men, who often feel that they are being harassed on the streets of our city," he said. "I want to make sure that the overwhelming majority of our young people do not feel in any way intimidated about moving about this city."

About 200 U.S. cities, including Miami, Washington and Atlanta, have curfews. In some cities, curfews have been criticized as violations of the constitutional right of free association. The U.S. Supreme Court has yet to make a definitive ruling, but in May it declined to hear a challenge to a Dallas law that was a model for Baltimore's.

Stuart Comstock-Gay, head of the American Civil Liberties Union of Maryland, said his group is waiting for Maryland's highest court to rule on a Frederick curfew law before deciding whether to sue Baltimore.

Baltimore already had a curfew law on the books. But that law, which applied to youths under the age of 16, did not carry any penalties. All officers could do was issue written warnings to parents.

Maj. John E. Gavrilis, commander of the Southeastern District, which cited 423 juveniles under the old curfew law last year, said the tougher new law is "just one more tool for the officers to use to fight crime."

The new law allows police to take young offenders home or keep them in holding centers until parents or state juvenile authorities can be notified.

Parents of violators can be fined $50 for the first offense and can be fined as much as $300 and given 60 days in jail for a second offense.

At least two Italian newspapers carried stories on Baltimore's new law in yesterday's and today's editions. Corriere Della Sera, which reaches 515,000 homes and is the largest Italian national daily, put it on the front page.

"We don't have a law like this in our country," said Monica Sargentini, a reporter for the L'Unita, a Rome-based national newspaper with a circulation of 182,000. "For us, this is something new."

Baltimore residents such as Ms. Nixon and Mike McFadden, 34, who has a 2-year-old daughter, said the curfew will help but that enforcement will be hard.

"I think it's cool," said Mr. McFadden, who lives on North Avenue in West Baltimore. "It should help a lot. But it's going to cause a lot of confusion. Most of the people under 17 aren't going to go in."

Councilman Martin O'Malley, a 3rd District Democrat who sponsored the legislation as a way of preventing shootings of children, acknowledged that it is "somewhat controversial. Some see it as a Big Brother bill."

But he agreed with the mayor and police commissioner on enforcement policies. "I wouldn't want them going out in huge strike forces," he said. "It sounds like children catchers or something. . . . It is not the cure-all. It's a measure that can be effective in curbing the number of children being struck by gunfire. The people that should be enforcing this are the parents."

At yesterday's news conference, Mr. Schmoke and Mr. Frazier emphasized that the law forces parents to take responsibility for their children.

The idea is not to prosecute parents, but to "return kids home to prevent them from becoming victims," Mr. Frazier said.

"At a certain point, we have a responsibility to take positive action," he said. "But it is an action that is intended to get a good result to make parents aware, to let kids know that they are at risk."

Mr. Schmoke said officers will be tough on violators they do go after.

"There will be a period of notice, but there will be prosecutions of . . . parents and of young people," he said.

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