Cutting crime with curfews: Police say method makes a difference

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MEXICO — Cars were being broken into late at night. Garages and their contents vandalized. Property was being damaged and destroyed. Constant vandalism went on late at night. Officials in the small Western Maine town could not stop crime from going on after hours.

Then came the tipping point.

In August 2014, a popular Thai restaurant was so badly vandalized by teenagers that the owners had to shut it down and come up with thousands of dollars for repairs. 

A frustrated Police Chief Roy Hodsdon asked the Planning Board to consider employing a tool that rings of another time and that by today’s standards seems quaint: a curfew.

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Hodsdon helped develop the ordinance with the Planning Board. The ordinance was approved by the Board of Selectmen and placed on a ballot for a town vote. Townspeople approved the curfew by a vote of 295-101 two months ago.

The curfew, which took effect immediately, requires anyone age 17 or younger who is not with a parent or guardian to be off town streets between 9 p.m. and 6 a.m. Exceptions include a minor going to or from work, attending a school event or religious affairs.

Regardless of curfews’ ties to another era, many Maine towns have them, and authorities say they work.

A Sun Journal survey of the 18 towns with municipal police departments in Androscoggin, Franklin and Oxford counties indicates 13 of those towns have curfews, each town tailoring the curfew’s requirements to its own needs.

Rumford is one of them.

Police Chief Stacy Carter acknowledged the town had such a problem with late-night vandalism by juveniles a few years ago that it implemented a curfew, which requires everyone under the age of 18 to be off the streets before 11:01 p.m.

“Ours went into effect just several years ago when we had a spike in vandalism, especially by the teenagers, and we enforced it pretty heavily,” Carter said. “Once people learned that this was to be taken seriously, we noticed a decline in the vandalism. It is not nearly as strictly enforced anymore because it just is not necessary for us to do so.” 

Nearby Dixfield also has a curfew, and is the only other town among the 13 that enforces a curfew as early as that of Mexico. Dixfield, however, applies the 9 p.m. curfew to minors 11 years of age and younger. Minors 12 and 13 years of age must be off the streets by 9:30 p.m. and those 14 through 17 must be off the streets by 10 p.m.

Sabattus applies its curfew at 11:01 p.m.

“Each town has different things that they need to worry about,” said Sabattus Police Chief Anthony Ward. “So some things are more or less enforced than others. There have been times when we have had a closer eye on curfews, but at this point in time, it is not really enforced.”

Lewiston, the biggest municipality in the tri-county area, has a curfew that starts at 10 p.m. during the week and at midnight on weekends.

“We have had a lot of minors causing problems in the past, so it is something that we do enforce,” said Lt. Adam Higgins of the Lewiston Police Department. “Now, with that being said, it is not something that we have to enforce very often.”

Most curfews allow police to charge parents and legal guardians for children who violate the curfews, when they believe it is warranted.

Mexico’s curfew ordinance states: “It shall be unlawful for a parent or guardian of a minor to knowingly permit, or allow by exercise and insufficient control, the minor to remain in a public place during curfew hours.” 

The penalty is a fine of $100 for the first offense and $200 for any subsequent offense, plus court costs.

Some towns have used the option. In 2009, a woman in Lewiston was fined $25 for allowing her minor to be out after the curfew hour. In 2010, a Rumford woman was fined $50 for her role in a curfew violation.

Warnings have been issued to some parents in Mexico, but no charges have been filed in the two months since the curfew was implemented, Hodsdon said.

“Knock on wood, but we haven’t had any repeat offenders, so we haven’t needed to do so yet, and we try not to charge someone for their first curfew violation,” he said.

According to Hodsdon, the curfew is already paying off. He explained that the curfew’s early start time was intended to specifically target younger vandals.

“I feel this time is sufficient and each situation will be looked at on a case-by-case basis,” he said. “Our goal with this ordinance is to curb young minors from being out after nine o’clock.” 

Hodsdon acknowledged that unlike in some towns, Mexico didn’t use the new curfew to quickly come down hard on minors and send a message.

“We will only question someone if they are loitering around private places or look like they are up to something,” he said.

While still early, Hodsdon said the town has noticed a slight decline in vandalism by minors since the curfew was instituted.

From March 2014 through July 2014, minors were considered the culprits in 13 criminal mischief cases. In the same time span this year, 11 cases of criminal mischief by minors were logged.

“The ordinance in place has even allowed us to help identify a missing child,” Hodsdon said. “We saw the child walking around after hours and were able to stop and talk (to the child) as a result of the curfew. This led to us finding how they had in fact been missing after we received their name.”

Staff writers Terry Karkos and Bruce Farrin contributed to this report.

cmousseau@sunjournal.com

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