Printed in the Iowa City Press-Citizen, Sept. 19, 2009.
Add us to the list of reluctant converts to a citywide curfew.
We still have concerns about the degree to which the ordinance actually will address the issues raised by the Iowa City police and many residents of the city's southeast side. But police officials said Tuesday that the curfew could be a "helpful tool" in responding to the neighborhood problems identified by southeast residents, and some parents report that a curfew could give them more leverage over their children's behavior.
Besides, the restrictions are hardly draconian -- kids younger than 14 have to be off the streets by 10 p.m., 14- and 15-year-olds by 11 p.m. and 16- and 17-year-olds by midnight. And the ordinance is full of justifiable exemptions.
Police likewise say that they plan to issue citations only as a last resort -- after verbal warnings and other strategies have been used. And even the fine associated with citation ("not in excess of 50 dollars") is worded vaguely enough to give magistrates discretion based on the specifics of the case and, presumably, on the ability of the minor's family to pay.
But we're now reluctantly supporting the curfew ordinance because we think passing it would help put the City Council into are more active mindset -- as opposed to local government's usual "let's not do anything that we are not absolutely sure will solve each and every problem we have" mentality.
We know that no one on the council thinks the curfew in itself will solve all the problems in the city -- especially on the southeast side. But the councilors need to be able to respond to some thorny short-term issues before they can move on the even thornier long-term issues about public safety and neighborhood inclusiveness.
Despite our concerns about whether a curfew will de-escalate problems on the southeast side, the proposed ordinance seems a tempered and appropriate response to residents' concerns. And if problems come up in the implementation of this ordinance, then those problems can be addressed by the council and, if necessary, the council can remove the curfew altogether.
Zero tolerance for crime -- tempered by acceptance, inclusion and genuine compassion for all individuals -- will do more for the safety of our community than any well-intended laws. We hope the latter is always the servant of the former.
In the meantime, however, the city needs to show residents that the elected officials, the police, juvenile court officers and neighborhood activists can work together to help make sure that no residents have to feel unsafe in their home.