Stay home or you're busted

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The Independent Culture
Ten months ago, the mayor of New Orleans introduced a curfew for children under 17. Now that juvenile crime has fallen by 42 per cent, other cities plan to follow suit.

"Put your hands on the hood." This is an order, not an invitation. "Spread your arms and legs." Benny Jefferson is 14 and he obeys without thinking. He's met New Orleans police Officer Frank Cooper before. This is the second time this month that Benny has been caught out after sundown. That's when a curfew descends on New Orleans for anyone under the age of 17. Juveniles must be off the sidewalks until six the next morning. Last year, Cooper saw 12 young corpses on these streets, more than ever before.

"Where's your mother, Benny?" asks Cooper, a 17-year veteran of the New Orleans Police Department. "You know where you're going next?" Benny knows all too well. He's set for a trip to the Central Curfew Center. "C'mon man, give me a break. I was pickin' up smokes for my mom." He begins to stand up. "Get back down," shouts Cooper. "Did I ask you to stand up?" Benny submits to Cooper's rough shove in the back but not without a sharp shrug of his shoulders. "Don't mess with me, Benny," says Cooper, "or I'll take you to juvenile. You can spend the night in the big house."

Benny is getting the tough treatment because Cooper has seen him hanging out with drug dealers. "Is your mother at home?" he asks. When Benny says no, Cooper laughs out loud and some of the tension leaves the air. "So why are you running errands? Get in the car."

Benny has just become curfew case number 3,514. That's how many juveniles have been detained since the curfew became operational 10 months ago. In the meantime, the juvenile crime rate has dropped by 42 per cent, overall crime is down by 31 per cent. Every category of crime has seen a reduction, except rape. Armed robberies have dropped by 29 per cent, car theft by 28 per cent and murder by 26 per cent.

The curfew was the idea of Marc Morial, who became mayor of New Orleans last May. "When I took office, New Orleans had an out-of-control crime problem," says Morial as he strides around his City Hall office. "Come and take a look at this." He picks up a letter from a parent. It thanks the police for picking up her son, for making her take more responsibility with her children. "We may have saved a child here. Too many of the city's children are already dead."

When the curfew was introduced, Morial took some heat. "I was accused of being an Uncle Tom, of oppressing my own people. But my people support this." Morial is a black civil rights lawyer who for three years was secretary of the Louisiana branch of the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU). He calls the curfew "forced responsibility" but denies that the measure is repressive. "The ultimate civil liberty is the right to feel secure in our own homes, to feel safe on the streets," he says. "We have taken every precaution to protect constitutional rights. But we will continue to defend our right to safety with every ounce of energy."

Back on the streets, Frank Cooper and his partner, William Moore, are driving Benny to the curfew centre. "Once he's there, his mother has six hours to collect him," says Cooper. "If she don't make the deadline, she's in trouble. That's what happened last time Benny was up - his mom showed after nine hours. So we issued her a summons for neglect." This means she has to appear in family court. "If we get that far, the parent usually gets a fine plus compulsory counselling."

The police radio suddenly lets out a high-pitched shriek. An urgent voice cries out. "1055, 1055 - corner of Lafayette and Broad, 1055." Cooper throws the wheel right and accelerates. "7-15 we copy - close by! Close by!" Code 1055 signals that an officer needs assistance, at which point all available cars race to the scene. We are there in seconds. It appears that somebody is taking a beating in the middle of the street. As we get closer, Cooper identifies the somebody as a suspect. The blows are coming from a female detective wielding a police radio.

Cooper and Moore pile out of the car, leaving Benny inside. "Look at that, man," Benny says, as the curfew officers help to suppress the prone suspect. "That's police brutality."

I ask Benny if he has been involved with drugs. "Look," he replies, "I know guys who trade, but they're just friends. Why shouldn't I spend time with them?" I ask why he's out after curfew. "My mom's out of town. I ain't going to just hang out with my grandma."

Around 80 per cent of curfew violators have come from single-parent families. In 75 per cent of these cases, the mother was the head of the household. About 80 per cent of the pick-ups so far have been African Americans, 7 per cent Asians, 6 per cent Hispanic and 7 per cent white. African Americans make up 65 per cent of the New Orleans population.

Cooper gets back in the car. "The guy on the ground was a known drug dealer." His breathing is heavy from exertion. "We found 15 bags of crack and a handgun. We're taking him in." I spot four other young men being led to police cars. "Those are all curfew violators. It's gone 11pm and all of them are under 16. One is only 12. In the past, we would have just told them to go home. Now they go into the system, they get some counselling and their parents get to know their kids are hanging out with dealers. That's why the curfew is a powerful new tool for us."

What about the racial split in the numbers? "This division is predominantly black," says Cooper. But wealthier children can avoid the curfew by driving outside New Orleans to Fat City or Jefferson Parish. Although it's still an offence to drive a car after curfew, the police accept that these children are unlikely to be stopped. "We are not looking for people driving cars," says Cooper. "Our focus is kids hanging out. If we can keep the streets empty after dark, the bad guys have nowhere to hide, they can't melt into a group."

Morial denies the curfew is racist. "You have to apply resources to the problem. Rich white kids were not dying in drive-bys and drug shoot-outs. I won't waste money to enforce the curfew in safer areas, just to meet some arbitrary standard of political correctness."

Morial's philosophy has been strikingly applied in the Lafayette housing projects. In 1994, 27 per cent of all New Orleans murders took place there. Cooper drives through the projects as we head to the curfew centre. "Look at the street lamps," he says. "A year ago every one of those lamps had been shot out by dealers. They wanted this place dark. Over 100 murders took place in that darkness. Now we have curfew and we found money for a police substation. In the past six months, there have been 600 arrests but only one murder."

What about civil liberties? Cooper thinks for a few seconds. "The Constitution was a good idea, but freedom has to be balanced with responsibility," he says. "The Founding Fathers knew nothing about big cities or drugs or semi-automatic weapons."

We pull into the curfew centre and park. Benny is pulled from the car and handed over to the sheriff. If he had been returning or heading to a school or religious event, he would not have been taken in. Likewise if he had been playing adult-supervised sports or exercising his First Amendment rights to free speech. But the ACLU is still keeping a close eye on the curfew programme. "We don't like the programme in principle," says Andie Syms of the Louisiana ACLU. "But we can't deny that it's been effective." Nor that it has won enormous public support. An opinion poll in April showed that 92 per cent of city residents thought the curfew was a good idea.

That may not include some of the programme's casualties. The sudden forced proximity of parent and child has brought a marked increase in domestic disputes. More than 200 parents have called the police since last May, begging for help. Almost all said they could not control their children. Some had even been attacked by them. Cases of child abuse are also on the increase. Police officers blame parents who find they cannot cope with the sudden enforcement of their responsibilities. Lousiana State University has just found funding for an emergency curfew counselling hotline which offers help to families in crisis.

Eight of America's 10 largest cities are now considering imposing their own curfew (the exceptions are New York and Los Angeles). That bothers civil rights lawyers. "It's unconstitutional and we will challenge it in the courts," says Denise LeBoeuf of the ACLU in Washington. "To make being out on the streets criminal based on someone's age is not a real solution."

Frank Cooper and his partner are preparing to go back on patrol. "Nobody wants this when they're young," he says. "But since we started this, we've collected almost 350 handguns from people who are less than 17 years of age. A different freedom is returning to the streets. The freedom to have a life without fear. It's not a long-term solution - for that you need jobs, more education - but it's a start and one that has already saved lives."