On June 26, a “flash crowd” of teens that allegedly gathered through the use of social media, ruined the end of an otherwise idyllic Coventry street fair.
Three days later, Cleveland Heights City Council held an emergency meeting and passed a new curfew that bans unaccompanied minors from both the Coventry and Cedar-Lee business districts from 6 p.m. to 6 a.m.
Council promises continuous review of this curfew add-on. Council members also emphasize that the curfew is not a direct result of the Coventry disturbance – in which 16 people were arrested. (A similar occurrence took place at one of the 2010 Coventry street fairs, and 9 were arrested).
Rather, it’s a result of a series of complaints over a longer period of time about kids who act threateningly, cause property damage and commit crimes while hanging out in both of these business districts.
City Council had to do something, and as a stop-gap measure the curfew seems reasonable enough. I don’t have a problem with it.
But the curfew strikes me as similar to a TSA pat-down: It comforts us with the notion that action has been taken without actually doing very much to make anyone safer.
Here’s why the curfew doesn’t really address the problem:
Trouble isn’t limited to these two business districts. In early 2010, a group of kids suddenly formed at Severance, causing disruption and property damage at Wal-Mart and the movie theaters before being split up. Teens can gather anywhere at any time and the new curfew only applies to two places.
Not everyone who causes a problem is an unaccompanied minor. What about 18-year-olds whose behavior falls somewhere between undesirable and warranting arrest? Nothing has changed for the police department’s ability to deal with them.
It doesn’t address personal crimes. Some of the people who are so disruptive in their loitering at Coventry and Cedar-Lee are undoubtedly the same people who steal wallets and cell phones and commit assaults with some regularity in the city’s residential neighborhoods. Regardless, a business-district curfew doesn’t do anything to deter these people from committing the much scarier crime of pointing a gun at you when there’s nobody else around.
It couldn’t have prevented the Coventry disturbance. It has been reported that police tried to turn away kids as they arrived at the street fair, but those kids had come by bus and therefore had no way of leaving immediately. A curfew gives police the legal justification to disperse a crowd – but not the practical means of doing so. If the new curfew had already been in place at the Coventry Street Fair, I’m skeptical whether it would have prevented a wave of kids from showing up and causing trouble.
It has the most impact on the wrong people. Everyone has been quick to mention that, for the most part, the problems aren’t being caused by kids from Cleveland Heights. The kids from other cities who caused the most recent disturbance will now go elsewhere – which is the objective of the law. But it leaves law-abiding kids from our own neighborhoods without the city’s best youth hangout – a place that has a fantastic playground, teen-friendly food and a great streetscape.
It’s not universally good for business. Some retailers will do better without gangs of kids scaring away their customers. Others – like the Grog Shop and Guy’s Pizza – depend on kids for their business.
So if the curfew isn’t going to solve the problem, what will?
I’m no public safety expert; that’s the role of our city’s own public safety director, a position held by City Manager Bob Downey. But based on about 45 minutes of internet surfing, here are some ideas:
Fight fire with fire. If kids use social media to gather, law enforcement needs to get better at tapping into their social media networks to learn in advance what they’re planning. Twitter streams, more often than not, are public. Kids’ Facebook pages are often unprotected. Law enforcement needs to develop the skill of infiltrating these public communication networks – and it can do so to a meaningful level without ever pushing the limits of privacy. Such initiatives are becoming common among police departments at colleges and universities.
Such efforts also would work best on a regional level, since social media networks don’t respect municipal boundaries. This would be an opportunity for East Side suburbs and our new county government to really practice regionalism by cooperatively developing an ability to peer into the internet chatter of problematic youth.
Involve the community. The greatest change caused by the internet revolution is that information has become two-way. But with respect to police departments, information tends to move in only one direction – from the outside in.
But police departments everywhere are being urged to change that. Some are embracing it; as an example, look at the Facebook page of the Bellevue, Nebraska police. Bellevue is a suburb with about 50,000 people – and apparently a healthy dialogue between law enforcement and citizens.
The main sense I get about public safety from CH residents, who write to me frequently, is that:
- They sense some level of crisis in safety here.
- They want to feel involved in helping to make the community safer.
People want to be able to help, but that means the police department must be willing to establish a non-traditional level of two-way communication. Our city is, by no means, alone in this. But our city, which for nearly 40 years has claimed to be on the cutting edge of innovative policing, has not yet moved very far down this path.
One local resident is mounting a campaign to bring Nixle – or something like it – to Cleveland Heights. It’s a “reverse 911” system, in which police can communicate proactively with members of the community who sign up to receive alerts. It could be used for everything from announcing parking bans on snowy days to soothing frayed nerves after a flash mob. Facebook could be used the same way. The city is building a new website; when I participated on a committee of citizens to help outline the website’s purpose, this kind of communication was discussed. But I believe it would be more effective to reach people within the range of their own habits, rather than expecting them to develop a new habit of visiting the city’s website.
I don’t know if a reverse 911 system would help anything, but it strikes me as a reasonable and obvious tool for the city to evaluate.
If you scan the links provided here, a theme comes through: Police departments are confronting a series of new challenges and they are coming to the conclusion that the solutions won’t come from the old play book – as does the city’s new curfew amendment.