Chinatown on a warm, late Saturday night may be the cool place to be for some, but D.C. law enforcement and the city’s teenage residents seem to be in disagreement, and similarly, up in arms about the city’s nearly 13-year-old curfew.
In fact, a common weekly sighting as the school year loomed in 2008 was loads of local teenagers hanging out on the most traveled intersection and teams of police officers waiting for something to happen.
“Well, yeah,” Keyona Ward, a 21-year-old from Northeast D.C., said, “I have seen this happening a lot.” Some police officers discriminate and categorize kids in the city, the Kenilworth resident said, “whether it be how they act, what they wear, how many there are.” Ward described a Friday night when she and two of her friends were leaving the movie theater after midnight to wait for a ride at the Chinatown metro station. A police officer was in his car “carding” people. He carded the three of them, a term meaning checking their identification to see if they were of age to be out past curfew. She and her friends were old enough, and were not subsequently taken by van to a detention center or back to their homes as is the law. “[Police] do go after kids that look like trouble in the area,” Ward said. “The thing that makes it look bad is the fact that some of the younger kids that are out past curfew put themselves out there to be seen.” She did not portray race as an issue, saying that she does not see many young white kids who hang out around the city at nighttime. “And if they are, they don’t make it as obvious.” By the time Sept. 20 rolled around, the Metropolitan Police Department had already reported 131 curfew violators in D.C. In October, another 26 were reported, according to a recent MPD report. The curfew begins at 12:01 a.m. each day and ends at 6 a.m. The law, called the Juvenile Curfew Act of 1995, mandates that all people under 17 years of age cannot be in the city’s streets or parks, or even in cars after a certain time every night. Any teen who is caught out past curfew is subject to a trip home, community service, and their parents could face community service and a $500 fine. The only youth who are exempt from the curfew, however, are those who are engaging in activities involving religion, school, work, organized recreation or exercise of their First Amendment rights. Before 2005, underage teenagers could stay out until 1 a.m. on Fridays and Saturdays. But after noticing that the number of curfew violators rose from 1,219 in 2004 to 2,123 in 2005, a 74 percent increase, city lawmakers decided they would up the ante. The MPD’s curfew enforcement branch stepped up its juvenile crime strategy before the 2005 school year started.
With juveniles out and about, an average of 35 extra crimes are added to the slew of robberies, assaults and other misdemeanor or felony offenses so far in 2008 within a one-block radius of Seventh and H Streets Northwest in the heart of Chinatown. Of the city’s more than 3,000 robberies this year, 394 occurred in Ward 2, which includes neighborhoods like Chinatown, Dupont Circle, Georgetown, and Mount Vernon Square. Total crime for the ward came down by about 1,200 incidents since 2006, according to reports from MPD, but black youths committed179 of 186 crimes in Ward 2 in 2008.
Chief of Police Charles H. Ramsey said in a statement that MPD stepped up curfew enforcement as part of its “overall strategy to combat juvenile involvement in crime — as both offenders and victims.” “I do feel that the curfew thing on a Saturday is a little dumb because that really is the only late night that kids have especially during the school year,” Ward, who was almost 20 years old in 2005 when she began to notice curfew enforcement. Rodney Young, a senior at Howard University, said he witnessed “a lot of racial targeting” by police officers, as well as a lot of confusion as he stood at Seventh and H one Saturday in October. He and three classmates had just eaten at the Hooters in Chinatown. “Cops were everywhere when we were there,” said Young, 21, of Miami. “There were at least 50 on that corner alone.” Young said he and his friends first noticed police officers arresting and strip-searching black teenagers. Then they saw officers dragging a cuffed teenager into a van labeled “curfew enforcement.” After the van pulled around the corner and down H Street, his friends heard a window smash and all of the cops started running toward the sound. “It was that, then they all started running in one direction after something, and then they came back and started running in another direction,” he said. “Then, a few of them stopped and hassled a group of boys who weren’t doing anything, and then they ran some more. It was madness.” On that Saturday, as it is with many weekend nights during the summer, police set up a perimeter in Chinatown with the greatest concentration of officers and squad vehicles at the Seventh and H Street intersection. The purpose: curfew enforcement, the van said. Eventually, while Young was there, attentions were turned to a string of juvenile robberies in Adams Morgan, , according to a police officer who chose not to have his name published. “I was there,” Young said. “Chinatown was not the cool kid’s spot that night.”