Pittsburgh City Council President Theresa Kail-Smith plans to introduce a resolution directing city officials to revisit an existing youth curfew, drawing criticism from residents and local leaders.
The resolution, to be introduced on Wed., Jan 18, directs the mayor to convene a committee to review enforcement of the city’s existing curfew law, which requires that children in violation of curfew be placed by police in the custody of a drop-off curfew center.
The existing curfew law further requires that professional counselors at the center make a written recommendation to each child’s district magistrate regarding the child’s circumstances. Penalties are capped at $300 for guardians of children found to be in violation, and repeated offenses will result in the guardians’ referral to the District Attorney for prosecution.
The city’s most recent curfew center closed in 2004 for lack of funding. Without a curfew center, police have said they cannot enforce the curfew law.
Kail-Smith tells Pittsburgh City Paper she’d like to see multiple curfew centers throughout the city.
“What I want to do is open a center, North, South, East, West, and Central to the city, not so much as a curfew center, but as a place for resources,” she says.
She says she envisions those centers as “a place for the kids to go that would be safe. Maybe they would work on a referral. Maybe the police officer says, ‘Here, this place is open, if you need a ride,’ and they could take them, and not to do the fines and not all that other stuff.”
Responses to a twitter post from PublicSource reporter Charlie Wolfson announcing Kail-Smith’s proposed resolution have been largely negative, with many citing concerns that a curfew would contribute to the criminalization of children of color and put them at greater risk of police violence.
Kail-Smith tells City Paper that such objections are premature, adding that she expects to amend her resolution based on discussions with other city officials.
“[The proposed text] is not what we intend to put through,” she says. “We’re going to amend it, we just introduced it this week.”
Tanisha Long, community organizer at the Abolitionist Law Center, tells City Paper in a written statement that curfews are often harmful to and disproportionally enforced in communities of color.
“We cannot ignore the way in which these laws tend to be disproportionately enforced in communities of color and the far-reaching implications of criminalizing children,” she says. “Councilwoman Kail-Smith’s move to push the mayor to enforce an already existing curfew through law enforcement officers is troubling. There are many reasons why a child may be out past curfew. Introducing children to the legal system for simply being outside is both harmful and reckless. We hope that council considers the financial, legal, and emotional impact this plan has on the families and children of Pittsburgh.”
Other advocates have similar concerns.
Any practice "that increases contact with the police" is dangerous for young people, especially young Black people, according to Muhammad Ali Nasir, who coordinates advocacy, policy, and civic engagement for the organization 1Hood, which offers extensive youth programming.
"A better use of the city’s resources would be an investment in community lead programs that approach the issue of community violence from a perspective of care and empathy," Nasir tells City Paper in an email.
Kail-Smith tells City Paper she is open to amending the resolution to limit police involvement.
“I don't necessarily know that it should be police enforcing it, versus some of the social workers that we have that are running a center,” Kail-Smith says.
Tracy Royston, who served as the city’s youth services manager under former Mayor Tom Murphy, tells City Paper she doesn’t believe it would be possible to run curfew centers without police involvement.
“There's really no other way to enforce a curfew without some kind of public safety individual having some involvement. And I don't know who else that would be, besides the police,” she says.
Royston, a current city controller candidate, oversaw the 2004 closure of the city’s curfew center and tells City Paper operating the center was a “logistical and financial nightmare” and that “actual usage” of the curfew center was “very low.”
“We would go weeks without having anybody, and then there'd be like nine kids in one night,” Royston says, “And you know, they would stay there, basically. We had to have a cell because they couldn't be released until it was their parent or guardian.”
Royston argues curfew centers are not an effective use of city resources.
“At that time, there was also rising gang violence, and we didn't see any impact on those numbers based on enforcing the curfew,” Royston says. “You really have to look at a cost-benefit analysis. We all certainly are concerned with public safety, and we all certainly know that kids getting their hands on to weapons is a huge issue. But I think that you really have to look at the historical data, and you really have to think about how much of this issue would really be addressed by enforcing the curfew?”
Royston suggests council devote resources to a community-driven process that asks Pittsburgh residents what their neighborhood needs to be safer. During Mayor Ed Gainey’s recent budget meeting in Homewood, she says she heard from residents who felt fixing their streetlights would make a meaningful contribution to neighborhood safety.
Royston suggested council should “get some real answers from the community and then you can also get community buy-in,” noting that many Pittsburghers already volunteer their time doing violence prevention work in their own communities.
“I understand that it seems like a quick fix solution, but to actually reestablish those curfew centers, if you think about all of the infrastructure that would have to go in and all of the policies and all of the legislation that would have to go into it. I think that the community process would actually be more efficient and really directly answer the issue, more so than then going through that process of reestablishing curfew centers,” she says.