Photo by Sam Hodgson
Police picked up Jobana Castellon during a curfew sweep in 2009. She said she was just walking home from an event designed to develop leadership skills in the Latino community.
The San Diego Police Department has begun compiling thousands of documents in an effort to better understand its curfew sweeps, a major initiative aimed at cutting crime among kids younger than 18.
But this new effort still won’t answer a major question about the program’s overall effectiveness. Police won’t know whether the sweeps have deterred kids from breaking curfew or other laws again, because they haven’t examined that information.
Police say the documents they are compiling describe how many kids arrested during the sweeps have completed crime diversion classes, which some minors can take to erase the curfew arrest from their record and avoid paying a fine.
The classes have been a core reason why many support the sweeps, used regularly in City Heights, southeastern San Diego and pockets of downtown. The program doesn’t just funnel kids into the criminal justice system, police say, but aims to teach them why they shouldn’t break the law again.
Police began conducting the sweeps nearly four years ago, and the lack of records underscores how little they have examined their high-profile program to date. While promoting its value to the community, they’ve relied instead on anecdotes and isolated statistics to justify the sweeps.
They’ve touted arresting suspected gang members, connecting sex trafficking victims with social services and reuniting runaways with their families. Citing these anecdotes and others, police say they know the sweeps are already effective at reducing crime.
“We have absolutely no doubt,” spokeswoman Lt. Andra Brown said in a recent interview.
However, the available data isn’t conclusive. Juvenile crime has actually gone down more dramatically in neighborhoods without the sweeps. While law enforcement agencies across the state have moved away from curfew arrests, they’ve reported equal or better results than San Diego police. The sweeps also don’t occur during the time when most juvenile crime happens.
Some residents and advocates have also expressed concern that the sweeps overreach and unnecessarily introduce good kids to the criminal justice system. While police often highlight arresting gang members, the program has also prompted them to handcuff kids walking home, still wearing soccer cleats.
Police have collected stockpiles of documents on their arrests and how the kids have been punished over the years, but haven’t taken the next step to figure out if those kids re-offend.
The new effort, Brown said, is only meant to examine whether the program’s educational aspects could be more effective, not whether the sweeps themselves have been.
Most kids found violating curfew are arrested and then given a choice about how to resolve their tickets.
They can pay a maximum $250 fine, fight the ticket in court or enroll in the diversion classes. The classes aim to educate at-risk youth about the dangers of crime, drugs and gangs, and why police conduct the sweeps.
But whether those messages are actually resonating with kids is uncertain. Police data shows most kids complete the classes but it is unknown how many of them re-offend later.
Brown said the department has documents that will show which kids have been eligible for the diversion classes, which chose to enroll and which completed the different programs. Police just haven’t culled the information from all of those reports into a more user-friendly format.
“It hadn’t been organized into something that’s searchable,” Brown said. “We realized that was a shortcoming and have proactively sought to straighten that out.”
Once all the information is compiled, Brown said, police will be able to evaluate whether kids more often complete different diversion models, such as a six-week class instead of a four-week class. Brown said she didn’t know how long the department’s review would take.
With the new information, police will have two piles of crime records but not the piece of information that connects them. They’ll know how many kids have completed diversion classes and how many crimes happen each year, but they won’t know whether those crimes were committed by the same kids who completed the diversion classes.
Police could figure this out today.
To connect the dots, police would need to flag kids who complete the classes and then monitor arrest records to see if their names pop up again. Police could also do this retroactively by checking whether kids who completed the classes years ago were ever arrested again.
Law enforcement officials, including San Diego police and local prosecutors, have often cited recidivism rates to measure the success of their crime-fighting programs.
Knowing the prevalence of repeat offenders would help measure whether the sweeps cut crime, which police have long claimed without conducting a full analysis of the program. Last month, we examined juvenile crime trends and found it’s unclear whether the sweeps have been responsible for a recent decline in crime. Places without the sweeps have reported greater drops in crime than those with them.
Before our story, police often cited falling crime numbers as evidence of the program’s success. Now, they say the program’s impacts are immeasurable with statistics. Believing the sweeps might prevent one violent crime is enough for police to say the program is worthwhile.
“Some things cannot be quantified with numbers and this is one of those things,” Brown said.
The sweeps began as an experiment in 2008 and have since expanded to southeastern neighborhoods, City Heights and downtown. Police call the program a national model for reducing juvenile crime and say numerous other agencies are interested in adopting it. Some already have elsewhere in the state.
Dozens of officers conduct San Diego’s sweeps each month and the department has paid overtime to officers in some cases. Numerous nonprofit organizations, volunteers and other law enforcement organizations participate, too.
“We didn’t want to just displace the issue. We wanted to get out there and educate them,” Capt. Tony McElroy, who’s credited with creating the program, said in a recent interview. “I look at everyone as an opportunity to educate.”
Some teens have said the diversion classes were valuable. In an interview with the Media Arts Center of San Diego in February, Carolina Grajales said the class taught her not to be out after curfew and said she’s now doing better in school, too.
But Jobana Castellon said her experience was frustrating. She said she was just walking home from an event designed to develop leadership skills in the Latino community when she got picked up.
It was 2009, and Castellon said she and her brother had decided to walk home rather than wait for their parents. Their home was two and half blocks away from the event. Castellon was 16 at the time. Her brother was 13.
A few minutes after 10 p.m., a San Diego police officer arrested them as part of a City Heights curfew sweep, she said. They enrolled in a diversion class instead of fighting the tickets in court.
Castellon, now 20 and a community volunteer in City Heights, said she and her brother completed the class but didn’t learn anything from it.
“All they were telling us was to manage our time and to not come out late at night,” she said. “They were labeling us as troubled kids like all we wanted to go do is party. It didn’t help me at all.”
In City Heights alone, police have arrested more than 1,700 kids in the sweeps and determined about 1,100 were eligible for diversion classes since 2009. Kids suspected of committing violent crimes or those already on probation aren’t eligible. They’re referred to court or jail.
Last year, police said they conducted a case study to figure out whether kids arrested during the sweeps are ever arrested again. Were the classes deterring kids from breaking curfew?
The department randomly tracked 36 kids who were arrested for violating curfew in City Heights and enrolled in the diversion classes. Police said six of them were arrested again during the year for curfew or school truancy violations, and most of the re-offenders hadn’t ever completed their classes.
Police said their study demonstrated the value of the classes because the kids who didn’t complete them were arrested again. Still, the sampling represents a tiny fraction of the more than 2,500 kids arrested citywide since 2008.
At a City Council committee meeting about the sweeps in November, Asst. Police Chief Boyd Long said the program aims to target troubled kids and connect them with the diversion classes. He said officers aren’t supposed to arrest just anybody they find on the streets after 10 p.m.
“They’re not out waiting for a car and being picked up for curfew en route home,” Long said. “We don’t want officers picking on the kids that are doing the right things. We want officers to find the kids that are subjecting themselves to some violent act or in some cases, some of those juveniles are also out committing crimes also at night.”
Castellon said she and her brother were not those kids. At her diversion class, she said she could see the troubled kids that the sweeps aim to educate but argued it didn’t make sense for her and her brother to be in the same group.
“I could see they just need to improve the curfew sweeps,” she said. “I think they were picking up the wrong kids. I think they should just take them straight to their house.”
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