Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Our View - Curfew to curb crime in city's southeast side?

Printed in the Iowa City Press-Citizen, Aug. 18, 2009.

"I feel like this neighborhood is out of control," said Brandi Mastain during a meeting Saturday in which more than 120 Grant Wood neighborhood residents met at Fairmeadows Park to share concerns about the neighborhood.

For months, Mastain and other residents have been expressing their frustrations about:

• Being awakened many times during the night by rowdy neighbors,

• Children being left on their own to roam at all hours,

• Streets and sidewalks being blocked by large groups of teens, and

• Gunfire -- most recently in the area of Lakeside Drive and Regal Lane about 11 p.m. Aug. 5.

The participants gave a variety of perspectives on the causes and solutions for the neighborhood's safety issues:

• Some said the issues were more important than the binge and underage drinking issues downtown.

• Some challenged the Iowa City Council's priorities by questioning the benefits of parks and bike paths if people are afraid to walk down the street.

• Others encouraged their neighbors to call the police if they see a gathering of kids they are concerned about.

• And still others expressed their discomfort at all the hyped-up language of "that side" or "those people."

Several neighbors said they have appreciated how, since the reports of shots fired on the Aug. 5, the police department has assigned additional investigators and patrols to the southeast side. But the police cannot maintain those patrols without additional staffing -- especially when university classes start up soon and the downtown pedestrian mall again fills with mobs of college-aged bar patrons at various stages of inebriation.

Indeed, the current laws on the books don't seem enough to turn the tide in the neighborhood.

While some neighbors were calling on the Iowa City Council to impose a curfew, Iowa City Police Chief Sam Hargadine said he would prefer the council pass a delinquent behavior ordinance. Rather than lock down on every teenager in the city, such an ordinance would allow the police to focus on the juveniles who are causing problems.

Hargadine, who was scheduled to discuss the issue with the Iowa City Council Monday night, makes a good case for the benefits of a delinquency behavior ordinance over those of a curfew. Charges under the delinquency ordinance wouldn't be required to be sent to the magistrate court, as those under the curfew would be. Instead, the ordinance he has in mind would give the juvenile court system jurisdiction. To be used most effectively, the ordinance would require Iowa City police and juvenile court officers to improve their communication -- which as been less than ideal in the past -- but Hargadine said some preliminary steps to that effect have been taken.

Although we understand the appeal of the delinquency ordinance over that of a curfew -- and although something needs to be done to address these public safety concerns -- the council still has to ask many questions and to hammer out many details if it decides to follow the chief's recommendation. Specifically, because police officers would have discretion on whether the ordinance has been broken, the council will have to consider how to address the inevitable disproportionate implementation of the ordinance in some neighborhoods and on specific racial or socio-economic groups.

In the meantime, we commend the organizers of and participants in Saturday's forum for facilitating such a candid discussion. We urge them to keep working on this until all discussion leads to practical solutions and broader community involvement.

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