Allison Ratzlaff and her 14-year-old son had a plan. He would watch “The Avengers” with three friends at a Mira Mesa movie theater and then text her when the group needed a ride home.

But all did not go as planned.

The same night, San Diego police conducted a curfew sweep in Mira Mesa, and the four boys got caught up in a swarm of squad cars fanning the neighborhood. Police stopped all minors found out past 10 p.m. and then decided whether to ticket them for breaking curfew.

The teens left the theater and texted Ratzlaff as they were told. But by the time her husband arrived to pick up the kids, the boys were sitting on a street curb, surrounded by eight police officers and flashing lights.

Police also arrested four teenage girls at the scene. They had apparently met the boys at the movies and were stopped for violating curfew, too. When her husband arrived, Ratzlaff said, the girls were crying.

Ratzlaff’s son was also shaken by the experience. He has a 4.0 GPA in school and has never been to detention, she said. This was the first time he’d been accused of breaking the law.

“We all knew where they were,” Ratzlaff said. “He said, ‘Will they come to the school and talk to me?’ He’s terrified. He’s really terrified.”

The incident isn’t a new concern. At a City Council meeting about the Police Department’s curfew sweeps last year, Councilwoman Lorie Zapf asked whether kids waiting outside movie theaters would be arrested. Asst. Police Chief Boyd Long assured her that police don’t target kids outside of movie theaters. Officers only arrest bad kids, he said.

“We don’t want the officers picking on the kids that are doing the right things,” Long told the council. “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.”

However, anecdotes show police have cast a broader net over their communities and catch more than just bad kids. Their arrests have included teens like Jobana Castellon, who was walking home from a community celebration, and kids playing soccer in parks. Groups like the American Civil Liberties Union argue the sweeps unnecessarily introduce kids to the criminal justice system, prejudicing them against law enforcement.

The eight teens arrested in Mira Mesa were accused of violating the city’s curfew and no other law. They were ages 13 and 14, and were out past 10 p.m. in a public space. Told Long’s comments at the November council meeting, Ratzlaff’s frustration with police grew.

“It’s exactly what they did,” Ratzlaff said. “It’s just absurd to me. I can’t believe they wait outside movie theaters.”

Detective Sgt. Robert Carroll oversees the officers who arrested the teens. He said there would have been no incident had the teens stayed at the movie theater. Instead, they walked across the street to wait for their ride home.

“We just can’t ignore that,” Carroll said. “My biggest concern is when they remove themselves from that safe area.”

By walking across the street, Carroll said the teens no longer had the safety net of adult supervision and police needed to make sure nothing bad happened to them. In recent years, police have reported more juvenile victims of violent crime in Mira Mesa than many neighborhoods in the city.

Police arrested the teens for violating curfew and called their parents to pick them up.

Ratzlaff said the four boys had walked across the street because that was an option in the family’s plan. Rather than wait at the movie theater, they could go to a nearby ice cream shop. Unfortunately for them, the shop had closed by the time they arrived.

“It was pretty innocent,” Ratzlaff said. “They wanted to get an ice cream. They didn’t want to wander around Mira Mesa.”

Carroll said he isn’t sure whether all of the teens will be prosecuted. That night, they were just released to their parents and told they would be ticketed. He said officers are still reviewing the case and wanted to see if any teens have prior criminal records.

Ratzlaff also isn’t sure what will happen next. Kids arrested during sweeps can decide to fight the ticket in court, attend a crime diversion class or pay a maximum $250 fine. Police offered her son the diversion class and her family is now discussing whether that’s the best route.

But her family has already finalized a new plan for the next time her son goes to a late movie. He won’t walk across the street for an ice cream. He’ll wait inside the movie theater until his parents are directly outside.

Of course, Ratzlaff’s family isn’t alone in making new plans to accommodate the city’s curfew. It became one of hundreds impacted by the Police Department’s recent curfew crackdown. In the last five years, police have more than doubled curfew arrests citywide.

Police now conduct monthly curfew sweeps in the City Heights, downtown and southeastern areas. They do them occasionally in places like Mira Mesa and don’t normally issue as many tickets. Police say the sweeps cut crime by removing kids from dangerous environments and connecting them with social services.

We’ve written about the Police Department’s unique initiative at length, and why some of the biggest claims surrounding its effectiveness and implementation are questionable or unfounded.

Keegan Kyle is a news reporter for Voice of San Diego. He writes about local government, creates infographics and handles the Fact Check Blog. What should he write about next?

Please contact him directly at keegan.kyle@voiceofsandiego.org or 619.550.5668. You can also find him on Twitter (@keegankyle) and Facebook.

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