published Sunday, May 29th, 2011

Coolidge Park curfew problems few so far

In the two months since the Chattanooga City Council banned unaccompanied children under 18 from Coolidge Park at night, not a single minor has been picked up for violating the code or taken to a special holding center in St. Elmo, police say.

“We’ve had very small issues and incidents there, and no juveniles have been taken to the center,” said Chattanooga Police Capt. Jeff Francis, who has been coordinating patrols in the park area.

But as school lets out for the summer, city officials expect more curfew violations, said Richard Beeland, spokesman for Mayor Ron Littlefield. The ordinance is likely the first of several new approaches to curfew violation and truancy to be hashed out at City Council meetings this year, he said.

The council passed the ordinance 10 days after a March 19 incident in which shots were fired as police tried to disperse a crowd of more than 300 youths.

The city designated the old police precinct next to the South Chattanooga Recreation Center in St. Elmo as a place to hold minors picked up for violations at Coolidge. Officials estimated the city would spend about $6,000 refurbishing the center.

To boost safety further at Coolidge, five more patrol officers were assigned to the park and about $20,000 was budgeted to pay their overtime through September, Beeland said.

Assistant Police Chief Mike Williams said the lack of incidents shows the public is aware of the ordinance, but it also reflects how tricky it is to enforce a curfew, because each case can vary drastically.

“Curfew has been a dilemma for us for some time,” Williams said.

City curfews are riddled with stipulations, and the statutes are different for city parks.

At Coolidge, the curfew is 6 p.m. to 6 a.m. for anyone under 18 who isn’t with a parent or guardian.

On other city property, it is unlawful for children under 16 to be unsupervised between 11 p.m. and 6 a.m., with hours extended on weekends.

So an unsupervised 17-year-old in Coolidge Park at 10 p.m. could be breaking the park’s curfew, but would be perfectly legal the moment he stepped out of the park’s boundaries.

There is also a slew of exceptions to the general curfew, including children traveling to or from a “school activity, entertainment, recreational activity or dance.”

And police say they generally don’t confront unsupervised youths who aren’t making trouble.

“The main thing that would draw attention is if someone is being unruly,” Francis said.

Even if an officer detains a juvenile, the youth’s chance of ending up at the St. Elmo center is slim, Francis said. In most cases, the minor’s parents will pick him up or the officer may take him home. Taking a teen to the St. Elmo center is a last resort, he said.

But just having the center expands officers’ options, Beeland said.

“The idea is not to tie up an officer with babysitting,” he said.

Win-Win

Though no curfew violators have been brought to the new center, it has stayed busy as the Parks and Recreation Department’s Youth Development Division, which focuses on programming for young people ages 13 to 25.

“It’s a win-win. We make use of the space during the day, and it’s a safe spot to bring kids after curfew if needed,” said Greta Hayes, director of recreation for Chattanooga Parks and Recreation.

Staff members said there have been some misconceptions about the center’s purpose.

“It’s not a detention center or a holding cell,” said recreation specialist Marcus Thomas. “We’re trying to give [youths] other options besides just hanging at the park or getting into trouble.”

The center soon will host dozens of teen programs, from personal fitness and reading skills to music recording, officials said.

Anyone brought to the center for violating curfew will be invited to join the programs. If juveniles are picked up when no one is at the center, Youth Development staff are on call to help supervise them while in the building.

Francis maintains that the curfew ordinance and the center are a platform for coping with curfew problems in other neighborhoods.

“Yes, there are problems in other areas besides the park that need to be focused on. But this is something we can start from,” Francis said.

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