By Robert Cyr
A controversial city-wide curfew put into effect by Bridgeport Mayor Bill Finch late last month is being lauded by local youth center directors as a long-overdue measure to curb the city’s violence, but civil liberties advocates are arguing that curfews do little more than restrict personal freedom.
But Bridgeport isn’t the only city that has responded to escalations in violent crime with a curfew. Hartford and New Haven have enacted similar measures in the past, and Vernon’s curfew was challenged – and defeated in federal court by the American Civil Liberties Union in 2003.
In an April 12 letter to Bridgeport City Council President Thomas McCarthy, ACLU of Connecticut lawyer David McGuire warned the council that a curfew would violate young people’s constitutional rights.
“In addition to being constitutionally suspect, this law is bad policy,” wrote McGuire. “Curfews divert scarce police resources away from fighting crime by saddling police with the burden of rounding up and investigating young people who are not causing any trouble. The police already have the authority to stop anyone they reasonably suspect of violating the law, day or night. Detaining young people when there’s no suspicion of a crime is not only ineffective, it will unnecessarily pull innocent youth into the criminal justice system.”
While the letter also urges the city council to avoid the cost of litigation, ACLU of Connecticut spokesperson Jeannie Leblanc would not confirm whether McGuire intended to challenge the curfew in court. “We’re monitoring the curfew, but that’s all we can say,” she said.
In a statement after the curfew’s passage, he reiterated his stance in a letter to the council. “The Bridgeport curfew looks like the easy way out politically, but it’s a huge mistake,” he wrote. “It criminalizes innocent behavior and fails to address the real problem of violent crime.”
Three days after the curfew passed the city council and Mayor’s office, the city saw a double daytime shooting that resulted in one death, pushing the number of homicides so far this year to 15. In late July, a teenager was shot in the head while she sat on her porch. In January, 14-year-old Justin Thompson was shot and killed while walking home from a sweet-sixteen birthday party.
The killings, which led to the curfew, drew outrage from communities and spurred marches and protests throughout the city. The curfew includes exceptions for teenagers with jobs and other special circumstances, and bars anyone under the age of 18 to be out on the streets without a parent or guardian between the hours of 11 p.m. and 6 a.m. Sundays through Thursdays and between midnight and 6 a.m. on Fridays and Saturdays. Parents of anyone picked up face a fine.
And while it’s still to early to tell just how effective the restrictions have been, it’s a definite step in the right direction, said Jermaine Laidlaw, director of the Jerome Orcutt Boys and Girls Club in Bridgeport.
“I’m all for the curfew and it’s long-overdue,” he said. “It’s hard to say how it’s working because it just started, but it’s something that’s going to work in the long run. We serve a lot of teenagers that take part in some those parties at night and we’re very concerned about them. The parties start out OK, with dancing and probably some drinking, but then just one thing goes wrong – and guns are introduced.”
The curfew and subsequent shootings drew pained, frustrated and cynical responses from Bridgeport residents on the social media website Facebook, where the topic of the curfew was a hot one. Bridgeport resident Damien Pettway wrote, “Crime is 24/7,” and Natasha Beasley, a University of Bridgeport graduate, said, “Another senseless teenage shooting during broad daylight even with a dumb (expletive) curfew like I said. @Bridgeport Police Department might I suggest gun raids instead of dumb (expletive) curfews that’s going to have more teens in the streets during the day because they can’t go out at night.”
Mayor Bill Finch and Bridgeport Police Chief Joseph Gaudette were not available for comment.
By Robert Cyr