New Jersey City Faces a Lockdown… for Its Own Good

By Michelle Chen Aug 21, 2009

The Mayor of Paterson, New Jersey wants to keep local residents safe at home. Whether they like it or not. The city is weighing a proposal to impose a blanket curfew in response to recent incidents of violent crime. The proposed ordinance would allow police to question people who are on the street when they’re not supposed to be—especially those folks who, you know, look like they might be up to something. All adults and youth in the densely populated city of about 147,000–the vast majority people of color–would be barred from “loitering” between midnight and 7 a.m.—presumably the hours when people most want to kill each other. Violators would be subject to fines of up to $2,000 and 90 days in jail. Incidentally, an offender slapped with the maximum penalty would be released just in time; the curfew would last only two months, perhaps because homicidal tendencies will drop off once the weather cools down. The ordinance, the Associated Press reports, would apparently make Paterson the first city in the country to impose a non-emergency curfew on all residents, raising major constitutional questions. Historically, government curfews have been tied to martial law and military conflicts. But Mayor Jose Torres thinks his city needs some unconventional intervention. "We’re trying to think outside the box," he said. "This was triggered predominantly by fear among city residents over the shootings that have been occurring this summer." However, statistics show that there have been fewer incidents of shootings and homicides in 2009 compared to this time last year. Though putting an entire city under lockdown might be unprecedented, cities and states have over the years experimented with various anti-gang and anti-loitering ordinances designed to restrict access to public space in the name of safety. Earlier this year in Oakland, a proposal for a youth curfew was met with public outcry (and was eventually defeated). Activists argued it would drive the criminalization of youth and encourage racial profiling, while failing to address the core problems that undermine community safety, such as a lack of jobs and educational resources. San Francisco has imposed a civil injunctions against several neighborhood gangs, effectively barring them from certain "violence-prone neighborhoods." To address potential civil liberties violations, the ACLU negotiated an “opt-out” policy with the city, enabling individuals to petition to be exempted from the order. In the 1990s, an anti-gang ordinance in Chicago made it easier to arrest people that law enforcement "reasonably believes to be criminal street gang members loitering in any public place." The law, according to an analysis by the Roosevelt Institution, led to the detention of 90,000 people each year, including many whose only offense was standing in the wrong place. The Supreme Court struck down the ordinance as overly vague, in violation of due process and equal protection rights. Yet, in addition to undermining civil rights, the law simply failed as policy. From 2004 to 2006 detentions under the law grew dramatically—and gang-related murders jumped by 25 percent. In Paterson, it’s unclear whether the targeted problem is even rooted in gang activity. According to the AP, police chose to describe the recent violence as “a tit-for-tat battle between rival groups” rather than gang conflict, per se. Whatever the cause of Paterson’s perceived crime surge, the curfew is being floated just as state lawmakers hit schools with abysmal budget cuts. According to the Education Law Center, the cutbacks disproportionately harm high-needs school districts, where poor, Black and Latino students are concentrated. So New Jersey politicians might not want to invest adequately to keep youth of color in school, but at least some are willing to do whatever it takes to keep them indoors. Image: Political demonstration in Paterson, N.J. (New Jersey Civil Rights Defense Committee)