Officer Luis Roman’s squad car raced down University Avenue toward a group of teenagers that an undercover cop described over the radio as nine gangsters. As police cars swarmed into the area, the teens split and Roman went after two.
He slammed on the brakes, switched on the car’s flashing lights and jumped out. The two boys, ages 16 and 18, stopped walking away and sat down on a cement porch without dispute. The undercover cop rushed over on foot and said the younger boy had thrown a black spray paint can under a bush.
As Roman handcuffed and placed the 16-year-old in the back of his squad car, the boy asked why he was being arrested.
“It’s a curfew sweep,” Roman told him. “Tonight’s your lucky night.”
The boy was one of 57 teenagers arrested by police during the curfew sweep Friday in City Heights. It was the first sweep conducted in that area since a judge struck down San Diego’s curfew law and the City Council passed an emergency measure to bring it back last month.
The city’s curfew law generally prohibits people under the age of 18 from being in public places between 10 p.m. and 6 a.m. The law has some exceptions, like attending school or church, and children can be out with a parent.
The sweeps are organized efforts by police to arrest as many teenagers during the prohibited hours as possible. It’s meant to catch lawbreakers, but even more fundamentally, keep kids away from crime too.
“It’s not just about the curfew law,” said Goodwin Higa, the principal at Cherokee Point who helps organize the curfew sweeps in City Heights. “It’s more about awareness and what’s happening out there.”
Nighttime in City Heights can be one of the most dangerous places to walk in San Diego. Although the city’s violent crime rate has dropped in recent years, the neighborhood still plays host to a higher level of gang activity than other communities and crimes, like street prostitution and the drug trade, are more prevalent.
So rather than targeting kids who are doing bad things after 10 p.m., the sweep is an effort to remove all youth from harm’s way when the risk becomes higher. They are less likely to become victims of gang violence or other crimes when they’re off the streets at night, supporters say.
“There are some kids out there that are just playing around, but we can’t control the environment out there,” said Capt. Lawrence McKinney, who oversees the curfew sweep for police. “We are erring on the side of safety.”
The sweep in City Heights routinely arrests more teenagers than others in San Diego, and supporters call it a model partnership between police and the neighborhood because it protects children from becoming victims of street violence. Others in the neighborhood question whether it’s simply introducing children to criminal justice at an earlier age, because they are being placed in the back of a squad car and punished.
Faviola Garcia, an afterschool teacher in City Heights, was trying to sort through those two perspectives Friday night as one of the sweep’s volunteers. She was concerned the community wasn’t playing an active role and wanted to see first-hand whether the program is actually helping kids.
“That’s the one motivation that I’m here for,” Garcia said. “I had my doubts about it.”
At 9 p.m., volunteers, service organizations and police started gathering for the curfew sweep at Cherokee Point Elementary School. The cafeteria had been transformed into a series of stations for teenagers and a separate line had been created for their parents.
Rather than writing citations and sending kids home, the curfew sweep in City Heights gives them an alternative choice. They can take the citation and possibly appeal it in court or sign up for a four to six-week diversion course. Those with prior criminal histories are disqualified from choosing.
And some teenagers arrested were not of the repeat troublemaker variety.
Teenagers arrested Friday night came into the cafeteria covered in sweat and wearing muddied soccer cleats. Some girls came in short skirts and some boys came in no shirts. They varied in age, size and ethnicity, much like the renowned diversity of all City Heights.
Others were allegedly gang members but that’s not always a clear. They might be wearing gang colors or have gang tattoos, but deny being part of a gang. The 16-year-old arrested by Officer Luis Roman, for example, denied being a gang member. He said he found the spray paint can and was going to paint his bike.
Other arrested teens came into the school cafeteria high on drugs or had drugs in their possession. After checking in, police searched any bags and had youth empty their pockets to scan for drugs or weapons.
It was a mostly usual crowd Friday, but police and volunteers said one group was missing. “You didn’t see too much teenage prostitution tonight, but last time there was a lot,” Higa said.
By 11:30 p.m., more than a dozen officers working the operation had arrested 27 just for curfew violations. When they conducted a similar curfew sweep in southeastern San Diego the previous weekend, they arrested 21 throughout the length of the sweep, which usually ends around 3 a.m.
At times, the line of those waiting to be processed extended outside the cafeteria’s front door. After being searched, the youth were questioned for a police report and then sent to talk with child protection services. In some cases, the kids might be out after curfew because they’re avoiding domestic problems, organizers said.
Throughout this whole process, around 50 volunteers helped police and the various other juvenile service officials. They called parents, cataloged searches, translated, helped with security and ordered pizza. It was mostly small tasks, but it meant more police could be scanning the streets.
“There’s a connected feeling in this community,” said Lynn Sharpe-Underwood, executive director the city’s Commission on Gang Prevention and Intervention, who attended as a volunteer. “As a group of committed volunteers, they are committed together and you want to be part of that and you want to support that.”
Some volunteers are parents of kids attending Cherokee Point Elementary. Some are friends, spouses or children of those who support the program and want to see it in action. Garcia said her mom, an administrator at the school, suggested she volunteer one night.
“This is kind of what I’m into,” Garcia said. “I like being involved in the community and there’s a lot of potential. It’s just not explored.”
When the City Heights curfew sweep first started last year, it was mainly driven by police and a group of volunteers from southeastern San Diego who first organized a similar program in their neighborhood. They shared ideas and even volunteers with the program in City Heights until it got its legs underneath it.
Now the Police Department and the program’s supporters talk about the City Heights curfew sweep as a model for other cities and even other parts of San Diego because the number of volunteers is large and consistent. McKinney said they sometimes have more volunteers than they have things for them all to do.
Some cities have already visited or talked with police about the program, but several organizers said they don’t know if it would actually work for other parts of San Diego.
“Every community is different. It’s the community responding with that partnership so they’re going to do it different in every part of the city,” Underwood said. “The community has to make those kinds of decisions as to what they want to happen and how they want that to happen.”