Opinion | Curfews for Pittsburgh youth will do more harm than good

By Paige Wasserman, Senior Staff Columnist

Last week, Pittsburgh City Council president Theresa Kail-Smith proposed legislation that would enforce a curfew for Pittsburgh minors. While the curfew has been on the books for decades, law enforcement hasn’t enforced it since 2004.

The curfew would last from 11 p.m. to 6 a.m. Sunday through Thursday, and midnight to 6 a.m. on Friday and Saturday in July and August. During the rest of the year, the curfew would be from 10 p.m. to 6 a.m. Sunday through Thursday and midnight to 6 a.m. on Friday and Saturday. There are exceptions, including for work or in emergencies, but for minors without these excuses, their late nights could end at a curfew center with a fine of up to $300.

The proposed system is meant to protect our youth, as Pittsburgh saw a 26% increase in homicides last year. The victims of said homicides were mostly Black men aged 15-24. However, if we want to make our communities safer, reinforcing the defunct curfew policy is not the way to do it. 

Pittsburgh’s former curfew center closed in 2004 –– and its operation was a “logistical and financial nightmare,” Tracy Royston, former Pittsburgh youth services manager, told Pittsburgh City-Paper. Royston also recalls that usage rates of the centers were “very low,” and that they “would go weeks without having anybody.” 

The more troubling concern with this legislation is an increased police presence. It’s no secret that law enforcement overpolices Black, low-income communities, and Pittsburgh is no exception. So naturally, since police are enforcing the curfews, there will be an increase in interactions between Black and Brown youth and law enforcement. 

Seeking a young person of color late at night and asking for their ID is stop-and-frisk — not to mention, Mayor Ed Gainey’s office noted that it is unlawful to ask for ID without probable cause. It takes a certain level of delusion to think such a measure will protect our youth rather than leaving them vulnerable to an adverse, potentially fatal encounter with the law.

Kail-Smith even said the solution, which stipulates a potential fine of up to $300, is “not necessarily punitive, but helpful.” The “necessarily” in this sentence is going to get a hernia from the heavy lifting it’s doing. How is a $300 fine for a low-income individual — or any individual, for that matter –– not a punitive measure? If you call something that is inherently punitive “not punitive,” it doesn’t make it not punitive.

Kail-Smith acknowledges that other cities are implementing curfews. In a city council meeting last Wednesday, she said, “Other cities are doing this … They’re doing it in D.C., they’re doing it in Chicago.” And she’s right –– many cities have used juvenile curfew laws dating back to the 90s. However, countless studies have ultimately concluded that there is not enough evidence to support the claim that juvenile curfews reduce crime or violence.

The proposed deadline for opening the curfew centers is May 31. Still, Kail-Smith’s vision is half-baked, if not raw. She said to City-Paper, “I don’t necessarily know that it should be police enforcing it, versus some of the social workers that we have that are running a center.” You don’t know? That’s convenient.

Kail-Smith did mention that Pittsburgh could house the curfew centers in community centers and other municipal buildings. She also notes that they’ll staff curfew centers with social workers. 

But let’s be real for a second — if you held a bachelor’s or master’s degree in social work, would you ever work from the hours of midnight to 6 a.m.? How is the City going to find willing and able staff to operate these centers? What are the “resources” Kail-Smith vaguely points to? I don’t have much faith in this plan –– an empty room with fold-out chairs, self-help pamphlets and Capri-Suns is not going to cut it.

An obvious first step to curbing gun violence would be gun control legislation. Major Crimes Commander Richard Ford said in 2022, 469 firearms were reported stolen in Pittsburgh. Police recovered 940 firearms last year and 54 ghost guns, meaning they are not trackable. A more robust gun buy-back program in Western Pennsylvania, while not a fix-all solution, could keep some ghost guns and stolen guns out of circulation. Although we need to see less gun violence, Pennsylvania’s GOP continues to block common-sense gun safety legislation, which only hurts the cause. 

Still, there are so many brilliant, passionate people in Pittsburgh who are working day in and day out to help disenfranchised youth. The City offered STOP the Violence grants to multiple groups addressing violence last summer. These projects entail free programs for high-risk kids –– sports, arts, academics –– as well as mentoring, support groups, mental health services that specialize in minority communities and so much more. The Plan for Peace included $9 million for the Reaching out on the Streets program, which also provides mental health services.

Yet lo and behold, Kail-Smith’s initial response to the Plan for Peace’s $9 million expansion was, “That $9 million is a lot of money that could pay for a lot of police officers.” I wonder what seasoning Kail-Smith uses before she licks the boot. Paprika? Chili powder?

Kail-Smith wants the same thing we want — a safe Pittsburgh for our most vulnerable people. But she doesn’t want to listen to the activists –– most of whom are people of color –– who are doing grassroots, community-driven work. These solutions take a lot longer than one year. Camille Baskin, the mother of Maleek Thomas, a young Black man who was shot and killed in Pittsburgh last year, explains that programs “need to get ahold of [youth] while they’re in elementary school — make them want more than what they’re seeing, what they’re living. Kids need to see that there’s more out here, but they need to see it starting young, not when their brains have already been heavily corrupted.” 

With Baskin’s words in mind, legislators need to consider that anti-violence solutions are a marathon, not a sprint, and they likely require a new generation of Yinzers to age into a safer, brighter future. Councilman Reverend Ricky Burgess agrees with Baskin, noting that violence prevention programs “can’t be judged in a year. You have to make a commitment to the work over decades.”

What happened to the conversations we had in June of 2020 at the height of the Black Lives Matter movement? We know that communities of color have a tense relationship with law enforcement. We know that law enforcement disproportionately inflicts violence upon Black people. We know that stop, question and frisk breeds further discontentment with policing among Black and Brown communities. And yet, we’re still coming up with these out-of-touch Band-Aid solutions.

There are Black and Brown people doing the work in this City, and they have said, over and over again, that it takes time to see the payoff. White elected officials like Kail-Smith need to stop trying to hijack the community-based initiatives that Black activists have proposed. Aggressive, punitive solutions will only poison our efforts. There are real people with lived experiences who know the problems — and they know the solutions. Listen to them.

Paige Wasserman (she/her) writes about the arts, pop culture, campus culture and things that make her want to scream. You can reach her at [email protected].