Despite dozens of public comments opposing an ordinance to expand the city’s curfew laws — and none in favor — the New Orleans City Council unanimously passed the measure on Thursday as part of the meeting’s consent agenda, normally reserved for “routine or non-controversial matters.”
Under current law, the city’s curfew does not apply to 17-year-olds. But the ordinance passed on Thursday expands it to include anyone under 18.
The proposal was brought by Councilmembers Jay Banks and Cyndi Nguyen, and supported by New Orleans Police Department Superintendent Shaun Ferguson. Ferguson has said that the curfew expansion would increase public safety, and also made the claim that the expansion was tracking city law to relatively recent changes in state law — which some who oppose the measure say is spurious reasoning.
Advocates opposing the expansion have warned that curfew laws in general are ineffective, applied discriminatorily, and can lead to dangerous encounters between youth and law enforcement.
And a coalition of organizations — including Louisiana Center for Children’s Rights, the Southern Poverty Law Center Action Fund, and Voice of the Experienced — objected the to the matter being placed on the consent agenda. Items in the consent agenda are voted on in a group rather than being debated individually. Earlier this week, advocates emailed Council members urging them to give the matter its own debate and vote.
That did not happen. Despite significant public attention and pushback against the measure, it remained on the consent agenda and was passed along with more than a dozen other items.
Following the passage of the ordinance, the coalition put out a statement denouncing the measure and the way in which it was passed.
“It’s disappointing that the Council members disregarded all of the concerns presented to them today,” the statement read. “By passing the curfew ordinance as part of the consent agenda, despite public opposition, the Council signaled that criminalizing children of color is a routine matter in New Orleans. If Council members contest that, we hope to see them come forward with policies to actively invest in children and families of color, especially when budget season comes around.”
But on Thursday, the vote on the consent agenda essentially turned into a debate on the curfew ordinance. Passing the consent agenda requires a public comment period. And on Thursday, the council received a large number of comments on the item, then followed the reading of those comments with a discussion of the curfew.
Public comments submitted to the council for the virtual meeting echoed the concerns of the coalition that the expanded curfew laws would criminalize Black youth. Many of them cited data gathered by the Southern Poverty Law Center that showed around 93 percent of people picked up for curfew violations in the summer of 2019 were Black or Hispanic. Those numbers track with data between 2009 and 2012 that showed 93 percent of kids who were stopped for curfew violations were Black.
“Curfews are the epitome of racist policy,” commenter Louis Gregory wrote. “When arrests and detention are equal between white and Black youths, then perhaps such policies can be argued as not detrimental to worsenging racial disparities….but right now you are trading away Black rights for an illusion of improved public welfare.”
Following public comment, however, the council turned to NOPD Deputy Superintendent John Thomas to address concerns that the expanded curfew law would be enforced discriminatorily. He said it would not be.
“I heard the statistics, and what they talked about, but NOPD is committed to enforcing the curfew across the board, throughout the city,” Thomas said. “We enforce the curfew violation just like any other law — across the board, no matter race, sex, or anything else.”
He said all of the stops the department made were monitored as part of the ongoing federal consent decree, to ensure that officers are engaging in bias-free policing. Councilmember Helena Moreno asked that Thomas return in front of the Council in a few months to provide data on curfew stops.
NOPD Superintendent Ferguson and some councilmembers have framed the curfew expansion as a way to make city law track with a state law that was passed in 2016 — and went into full effect last year — that mandated 17-year-olds be treated as juveniles in the criminal legal system.
However, according to the Louisiana Center for Children’s Rights, that state legislation was not necessary to make the change. Even before Raise the Age passed, the Louisiana Children’s Code dictated that “status offenses,” such as curfew violations, could be applied to 17-year-olds. The law only affected the treatment of 17-year-olds charged with “delinquency” offenses — acts that are considered crimes regardless of a person’s age.
More importantly, expanding the curfew ordinance goes against the general spirit of the Raise the Age legislation, said LCCR Policy Director Rachel Gassert.
“The point of Raise the Age was to recognize that 17-year-olds are, in fact, children and need to be treated as such,” she said. “Deploying cops on kids for breaking curfew is not an appropriate way to treat children, and we oppose it for youth of all ages. If the City Council truly wants to abide by the spirit of Raise the Age, they can invest our resources in supporting kids instead of continuing to criminalize them.”