Teens picked up for violating Chattanooga's new Coolidge Park curfew might actually prefer where they end up.
Curfew violators ages 13 to 17 will be taken to the former police precinct attached to the South Chattanooga Recreation Center in St. Elmo, which will be fitted out with TV's, video games and computers, plus snacks, showers and beds.
Once there, though, they'll have to listen to information about the consequences of future violations, such as referral to juvenile court. And if they're left longer than eight hours, their parents could face child-neglect charges.
But the center staff, made up of Chattanooga police, Parks and Recreation officials and YMCA employees, hopes getting to know the teens informally will help persuade them to stay out of Coolidge Park after hours and use the city's network of recreation centers.
"The reality is I can learn a whole lot more about a kid if I'm sitting down playing checkers with him than I can if I'm sitting in an office taking down notes," said Joe Smith, regional YMCA Community Action director. "This is not designed to be punitive. What it's designed to do is to uncover needs, and of course to protect that child and protect the other citizens in the park."
On Tuesday, the City Council passed an ordinance banning minors in the park between 6 p.m. and 6 a.m. unless they're accompanied by a parent, legal guardian or adult over 21.
The council was reacting to an incident March 19 when shots were fired while police were dispersing a crowd of about 300 youths.
A similar incident occurred in March 2010, but in that case, five people were shot, but none seriously injured.
The center in St. Elmo is meant to be an early-intervention program for teens.
The center will be open only when police detain youths violating the curfew. Parents will be contacted and the teens will be held until an adult picks them up.
Although Smith expects the teens' guardians will often show up within a few hours, the cots, food and showers will be available to those who require a longer stay and whose parents may face charges.
"Once you take a couple of parents and stick them out on the highway, picking up trash for a couple days, they might be worried about where junior's at," Chattanooga Police Chief Bobby Dodd said.
Children 12 and under will be referred to child services if they're picked up, and their parents could be charged with child neglect.
Teens won't face formal charges for ordinance violations, but will be referred to Juvenile Court, where their parents could be fined $50.
The center's workers plan to counsel violators and their parents before things get bad.
"You don't want to make them feel like they're criminals because that might make them feel like they could do something. It's that self-fulfilling prophecy," said Jim Williams, a recreation center regular who lives in the area.
City officials estimate it will cost about $6,000 to install security cameras, door locks, cots and other equipment in the detention area.
Dodd said there will be other costs associated with the program, but some would be offshoots of already-established programs. For example, food will likely be provided by a program that gives lunches to Parks and Recreation facilities' users.
"It's not going to be a Hilton, but it's not going to be a jail, either," Dodd said.
To enforce the curfew, police are doubling their patrols in Coolidge Park, using overtime as the force increases from five to 10 officers. Dodd said the force will be scaled back as Chattanoogans get used to the new ordinance.
RoseMary Porter is president of the Villages at Alton Park Neighborhood Watch and chairwoman of the area's Leadership Advisory Council. She said there are shootings in other parts of the city that police also should be worried about.
"They're just geared towards certain areas in the city, depending on who lives there and the businesses, and they're not concerned about our area," she said.
With a Police Services Center and Juvenile Court already in Chattanooga, Porter said ordinance violators should be taken to those facilities rather than a new center.
"Why open up a new building and spend the $6,000 when you can take them to a facility that already exists?" Porter asked. "Why would they even think to put a detention center right next to a recreation center?"