Walking to the store for a bag of chips can get a teen arrested.

When San Diego city police find anyone under 18 years old outside after 10 p.m. – officers can swiftly detain, handcuff and haul them away on curfew violation charges.

Youth don’t have to be engaged in any other crime to be arrested during curfew – curfew violation is enough – though, the city’s curfew policy lists ways for youth to avoid arrests after 10 p.m., such as being under adult supervision, or coming from work or school events.

Police in each of the city’s nine neighborhood divisions elect when to practice curfew sweeps, which are police-coordinated events where officers search for minors. The frequency of sweeps depends on the needs of each division’s community and available resources, said Lt. Scott Wahl, a spokesman for the San Diego Police Department.

In 2008, police began conducting monthly curfew sweeps in southeastern San Diego neighborhoods. Minors caught up in the sweeps and their parents were directed to diversion programs. Families faced fines and juvenile records, which could be cleared by completing the classes. Police and residents called the educational initiative a success and expanded the programs to City Heights in 2009 and downtown neighborhoods in 2010.

Police said when the sweeps were launched – and continue to say – that the purpose of the sweeps is to ensure youth safety and prevent youth from participating in criminal activity.

I wanted to learn more, so I recently joined the San Diego Police Department’s Southeastern Division for a curfew sweep ride-along. Weeks later, I returned to commonly swept areas to experience another curfew sweep from a community resident’s perspective.

Here’s what happened.

Rolling With the Police

On a Friday night, just before 10 p.m., I met about 20 officers and community volunteers gathered at the Southeastern Division police station preparing for a curfew detail. Officers donned weapon belts and bulletproof vests and greeted me with warm smiles and hot coffee – before handing me a paper name tag and non-liability form.

They assigned me a ride-along partner, Officer Troy Owens, who’s served nearly three decades on the force. He and I made our way in a police SUV from the police station to the 62nd Street trolley station in Encanto. Other officers followed.

While pointing flashlights, officers approached a half-dozen people at station benches. I followed closely behind Owens.

“Hey guys,” Owens said, “we’re out here doing a curfew sweep and we just want to make sure everyone is 18, can I see your IDs, please?” Other officers simply asked people for ID.

Everyone there was an adult.

More of the same occurred at the Euclid Avenue trolley station just over a mile away. But at the 47th Street trolley station, officers identified two young-looking people sitting on a bench.

It was all bad.

Both told Owens they were 18 – and then struggled to recall their dates of birth. Owens switched on his body camera, stood the pair to their feet, patted them down and found IDs that showed they were under 18. Officers arrested the teens and placed them in the back of separate police vehicles.

Just then, a trolley arrived – and a person exited and ran down a flight of stairs toward the street. He seemed to be wearing headphones and didn’t respond when officers called out to him. The officers ran across the parking lot after him – shouting and waving their flashlights – leaving the already arrested youth in police vehicles. A few moments later, the officers walked back and said the person they chased was an adult.

After we returned to the police station, officers replaced the metal handcuffs with plastic flex cuffs on three male teens: the two pals who pretended to be 18 and another male teenager. The three sat side by side and faced officers who asked them a series of questions for paperwork purposes. When one of the boys said he was thirsty, an officer brought him a bottle of water and poured the water into the handcuffed teen’s mouth.

Owens asked them how they felt about curfew sweeps.

“Pros and cons,” one teen said. It’s important to keep young people safe from potential dangers on the streets, he said, but “the con is you get arrested.”

The teen said he knew all about getting arrested because police caught him four to five times for prior curfew violations. He battled substance abuse issues, wasn’t enrolled in school, recently completed a multi-week stint in juvenile hall and was on probation, he said. (And, because of his probationary status, his curfew was much earlier: 6 p.m., officers said.)

Police called the three minors’ family members so they could retrieve their children from the station. But when officers determined the chronic curfew violator lived in Mexico, Owens and I drove him to the San Ysidro border crossing, where the teen’s aunt crossed into the United States to claim him. On the way there, the teen said he had been waiting for a trolley to take him home when he was caught in that night’s sweep.

The teen’s aunt expressed delight and relief at the sight of her nephew – she kissed him on the cheek and thanked Owens for bringing him to her.

It wasn’t apparent how the curfew sweep produced a successful result for the teen. Though he said he’d report to his probation officer – he seemed, otherwise, unaffected.

Being Among the People

A few weeks later, I visited the same spots in southeastern San Diego during another curfew sweep. This time, with no officers accompanying me.

By then, I understood police arrest youth like they arrest adults – with pat-downs, pocket searches, Miranda rights and handcuffs – but watching police arrest minors didn’t become any easier. I continued to look for evidence that arresting youth was a necessary part of keeping them safe while preventing them from participating in criminal activity.

At the start of curfew, I watched a teen sitting on a bench at the 62nd Street trolley station with his sweatshirt hood up over his head. He appeared to be sleeping. The police arrived at the station soon after 10 p.m. and by 10:08 p.m. officers stood the teen to his feet, handcuffed him and led him to a police car.

At the 47th Street trolley station, officers waited on a platform as a trolley entered the station. Officers handcuffed three minors who’d stepped off the trolley.

Photo by Rachel Evans
Photo by Rachel Evans

At the Euclid Avenue trolley station, while I observed police from a trolley station parking lot, an officer approached me. He said I looked “like a teenager” with a “youthful appearance” and that he was “just doing a curfew sweep” before walking away to search for minors. (I’m in my mid-30s, and thank you, officer, for, you know, not arresting me.)

Around midnight, I went back to the police station and asked officers about that night’s sweep. They said they arrested eight teens – all male – and that all eight admitted to knowing about curfew. Seven had never been arrested for prior curfew violations, they said. (They also confirmed the person in the hooded sweatshirt was among the teens arrested that night.)

One after the other, parents arrived at the police station to pick up their children. When a few teens’ parents didn’t arrive, however, officers escorted the unclaimed teens outside – still in handcuffs – put them in police vehicles and took them home.

The Takeaway

Here’s what I learned.

First, it seems curfew sweeps in southeastern San Diego won’t stop anytime soon.

Sgt. Elias Estrada at the Southeastern Division said his team of officers plans to continue sweeps for months, perhaps years, to come – and that the number of youth caught during sweeps doesn’t bear on their decision to keep up the practice. (In fact, one of the sweeps conducted as I was reporting this article turned up only one minor, Estrada said.)

“Parents often thank us for picking up their kids,” Estrada said. “Our aim is to make sure minors are kept safe and out of danger.”

Next, minors can be arrested regardless of where they reside. (So, a teen from one region of San Diego where police don’t run curfew sweeps can be caught as soon as he or she enters, or attempts to pass through an area police are sweeping, such as at a transit stop.)

Another observation: While searching for minors, it seems police approach a lot of adults. Estrada said police are trained to look for what’s called “youthful appearance” during curfew sweeps – but officers approach and ask to see the IDs of many people a decade or more removed from being a minor. That means adults in areas where sweeps occur have interactions with police for no other reason than being outside and looking young.

And, perhaps, most surprisingly, I learned that – under special circumstances – written parent permission letters keep minors from curfew detention. Though the specific option is not listed in the city’s curfew policy, officers I spoke with confirmed parent permission letters can help youth avoid arrest during some instances, such as when a parent requires a minor to pick up medication or run a similar emergency errand.

Evan Ziegler, lieutenant at the San Diego Police Department’s Juvenile Administration, said police can use their discretion on a case-by-case basis when deciding whether to accept parent permission letters. Owens said after reviewing such letters, officers may call the minor’s parents to confirm they gave their child permission to be out – and in some instances, police may allow minors to continue on their way, or they may deliver the minors home, he said.

Still, not all parents agree with how police run curfew sweeps.

Jamie Wilson has two sons who she said police arrested on separate dates – one last November and one this June – for curfew violations. In an email, she wrote that police arrested her 15-year-old son, along with his friends, as they waited at the 47th Street trolley station.

She also said her 17-year-old was waiting for a bus at the Euclid Avenue trolley station when two officers demanded his age. They asked to search his backpack and arrested him when he refused. He was nine days from turning 18.

“An officer called both times and asked if I was the mother and I said yes, and they told me they had my son, they picked him up for a curfew violation and I could come and get him from the [police] station,” Wilson said.

Both Wilson and her 15-year-old took a six-week diversion class at Second Chance, a nonprofit dedicated to reducing recidivism – where decades-long parolees, mothers of murdered children and others talked to students.

It wasn’t productive, Wilson said.

“We watched slideshows of dead kids. Some were hung, many with bullet wounds and their head almost blown off. A lot of discussion about drugs and alcohol. Completely inappropriate consequence for being caught at a trolley on your way home at 10:15 p.m.,” Wilson wrote.

The police should apply their resources toward youth at risk of encountering real danger, such those at certain house parties, instead of criminalizing those taking public transportation home, she said.

Nonetheless, Wilson encourages other parents to become aware of the seriousness of curfew sweeps.

“Make sure your kids know their rights, and know the legally warranted reasons for being out and on their way home after 10 p.m.” she wrote. “And tell them, during any encounter with an officer, the first thing they should ask is, ‘Please make sure your body cam is on.’”

Rachel Evans is a reporter for Voice of San Diego. She can be reached at rachel.evans@voiceofsandiego.org

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