Montgomery County's proposed curfew drew more bile than praise Tuesday afternoon at the controversial measure's public hearing in Rockville, including pointed criticism from members of the County Council that will ultimately decide its fate.
The curfew found unwavering support from police brass and Silver Spring civic leaders, who argued that the curfew would give officers a much-needed tool for preventing juvenile crime. But 18 of the 27 people who testified to the Council rebuked curfews on several fronts, from their questionable effectiveness to the difficulty of enforcing them fairly to their long-term impacts on teens’ trust of police.
"It would criminalize any teenager out at night and without any discernible benefit," said Abigail Burman, 17, of Silver Spring, who co-founded the Facebook page Stand Up to the MoCo Youth Curfew, which has rallied more than 6,400 supporters. "This is suppressive without being preventative."
More than 100 people—many of them wearing nametags that read "Hanging out is not a crime"—attended the hearing on Bill 25-11, which was introduced at the request of County Executive Isiah Leggett (D) on July 12. The curfew would run from 11 p.m. to 5 a.m. Sunday through Thursday, and midnight to 5 a.m. on Fridays and Saturdays. Exceptions include minors who are working or are accompanied by a parent.
Similar laws have been in effect in Washington, D.C., and Prince George’s County for more than a decade. Montgomery’s version was spurred in large part by a sprawling gang fight in downtown Silver Spring over the July 4th weekend, during which a 17-year-old girl was stabbed. The teens involved in the fight told police they had come to Montgomery County because of curfews in surrounding jurisdictions.
"These recent events and hundreds others call for immediate action," said Montgomery County Police Chief J. Thomas Manger. "A curfew law may not be a panacea, but it would be a valuable law enforcement tool. … Nobody’s claiming that this will reduce crime rates. … This will continue to allow us to prevent crime from happening."
Detractors pointed to curfews attempted across the country, many of which were thrown out in court or debunked by research.
"The vast majority of studies on curfews, including D.C. and Prince George’s, have not found that they reduce crime," said Michael Mage, co-chairman of the county chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union. "Police can already detain kids at any time if they suspect criminal activity."
Manger dismissed that argument—"You can find reports that support whatever position you want to take," he said—and was stalwart in defending the curfew’s value as a deterrent. But he acknowledged that some of the particulars are up for debate and that it remains unclear how the curfew would be enforced.
That uncertainty troubles the county’s police union. Torrie Cooke, corporation vice president of the Fraternal Order of Police Lodge 35, deemed the curfew a drastic and overly broad endeavor that will drain the department’s resources and force officers to act as parents.
The County Council met the curfew with ambivalence—finding dismay over its details and frustration with the process, but acknowledging the urgency of the issues that compelled it.
"The experiment that is downtown Silver Spring is on the precipice now of failing," said Council President Valerie Ervin, who represents the Silver Spring district.
Calling the curfew a narrow response to a complex problem, Councilwoman Nancy Navarro stressed the need for a “serious and very frank discourse” on the broader state of the county’s youth.
Several council members complained that the curfew has been hastily proposed. Phil Andrews, chairman of the Council’s Public Safety Committee, said the bill seems written “at warp speed,” while Council Vice President Roger Berliner called it “unfathomable” that the problems in Silver Spring could have grown so dire without the Council having any indication.
"The issue is whether or not this is the most appropriate tool. What this feels like to me is that Montgomery County youths are paying the price for youths from other jurisdictions," said Berliner (D-Dist. 1) of Potomac. "I’m proud that we’re not the District of Columbia or Prince George’s County when it comes to violence in the community. The statistics are going the right way and we really need to work through what the other options are."
The curfew proposal now heads to a Sept. 15 session of the Public Safety Committee.
"It clearly needs a lot of work," Ervin said. "… We’re far from a perfect bill. We don't even know where it's going yet."
Sebastian Montes contributed to this report.