In Richmond, Virtually all Juveniles Stopped for Curfew Violations Were African-Americans

Aug 12, 2019

Robert Morris, commissioner for RVA League for Safer Streets. Many of the young men he works with have been stopped by police.
Credit Mallory Noe-Payne / Radio IQ

Earlier this year Richmond Police released a trove of data. It revealed who in the city is stopped by law enforcement, and why. The numbers show large racial disparities in stops for things like suspicious activity, and disorderly conduct. 

But one violation stands out. 

 


Of the young people stopped last year in Richmond for violating curfew 98% were black. 

But first, what’s curfew? 

“If you went to many other places in the world and talked about this they would go ‘What?’ Because it seems to be pretty much an American phenomenon,” says David Wilson. He studies criminology at George Mason University. 

Wilson says most metro areas in the US have curfew, including here in Virginia. For instance,  in Charlottesville a kid under 18 isn’t allowed out on the streets between midnight and 5 am. The ages and times vary city to city. 

Curfew ordinances are meant to reduce crime and protect kids from crime. But Wilson analyzed the research and found they just don’t work. 

“We’re just simply not seeing any meaningful reductions in youth delinquent behavior or victimization,” he says. 

Instead, many experts suggest the laws could actually be harmful, because they’re disproportionately enforced. And that brings things back to Richmond. 

In 2018, according to data released by the Richmond Police Department, 98% of interactions for curfew violations were with young black people.

“It’s highly unlikely that the only people who are actually violating curfew laws are black,  when less than half of the city is black,” says Liz Coston, a sociologist at VCU. 

Coston works with the advocacy group RTAP, or Richmond Transparency and Accountability Project. The group pushed for this data and continues to push for a civilian review board.

 

Coston fears the law can be used as an excuse to stop anyone that looks young -- then dig around for a different offense. 

“These stops can serve as a first step into an interaction with the criminal justice system,” Coston says. “So just because I saw you on the street and I thought you looked young now can I investigate you.”  

The data isn’t specific enough to demonstrate whether or not that’s happening. But there is an alternative: not really enforcing curfew. 

In Roanoke there have been hardly any arrests for curfew violations in the past couple years. In Charlottesville it’s been decades since someone has been arrested for violating curfew. Neither locality had information on how many people were stopped on suspicion of violating curfew.  

And in Richmond, while the disparity is high, the numbers themselves seem relatively low - only 24 people stopped in 2018. 

Coston doesn’t buy that. 

“There are likely many other stops that occurred that officers decided not to fill out reports for,” says Coston. 

Richmond’s police chief agrees. In a recent interview, Chief William Smith says that data is not the full picture. But in the interest of transparency, the department released it anyway. 

Chief Smith hopes to have a new reporting system up and running next year, that once implemented will give the department, and citizens, more accurate information. 

But in the meantime, for a better idea of what the numbers may look like, consider Norfolk -- a similarly sized city. In 2018 police there stopped more than 1,200 people on suspicion of curfew violations. More than 80% of those were black. 

For Robert Morris those numbers confirm a lifetime of experience. Morris runs a community basketball league, RVA League for Safer Streets, where teens and young adults play against each other and the police. 

“So once they engage in relationship and they see each other out in the community you know we can have a happy ending instead of a sad ending,” says Morris. 

Morris has four sons, now all adults.  One is an elementary school teacher, another in the air force. All have been stopped by police at some point in their lives. 

“I don’t accuse the police of anything, you know. I do know that when they deal with blacks it’s a whole other set of rules,” Morris says. “They tend to take things too far. They look at minor issues as major issues when they deal with young blacks.” 

Richmond’s new police chief says community engagement is a priority of his. A day after being sworn in, he spent the evening with Morris’ basketball league.

 

This report, provided by Virginia Public Radio, was made possible with support from the Virginia Education Association.