Bethel fails to enforce curfew, fears lawsuit

Posted: Thursday, June 20, 2002

BETHEL (AP) -- Attacks on elders by small packs of youth in Bethel last winter made 70-year-old Paul Gregory afraid to walk down the street at night.

''It is very dangerous for older people to run around there at night, Gregory told The Tundra Drums. ''These 16-, 17-, 18-year-old kids looking for these kinds of people. They want to rob them, they want to take their money.''

Gregory has testified before the Bethel City Council and the city's finance committee, requesting they enforce curfew ordinances.

A curfew could help, said George Dahl, acting chief of police.

''Most of the times juvenile crimes are minor, things like vandalism, throwing rocks and breaking windshields,'' Dahl said. ''And there is some theft. If there is a snowmachine left running, it can be quite attractive to somebody young. Idle minds lead into idle hands, which could eventually turn into something more destructive.''

Bethel's ordinances include a curfew modeled after Anchorage's law. The curfew prohibits youth under 18 from being on the street unaccompanied by a parent or guardian after 10 p.m. weekdays and midnight on weekends.

Some parts of the ordinance are enforced, Dahl said. Police officers interview groups of juveniles hanging out on the street to find out what they are doing. If an officer concludes a teen-ager has the potential to harm himself or others, the officer may take them into protective custody, Dahl said.

When teens are caught doing something illegal, such as drinking alcohol, they are brought into the station and their parents are called, Dahl said.

''We are not ignoring it,'' Dahl said. ''We do pay attention to what young people are doing out there.''

However, parents and guardians are not issued citations as allowed in the ordinance for children out past curfew in part because of the potential for a legal challenge.

The Anchorage curfew has been challenged in court. In June 1999, the Alaska Civil Liberties Union filed a lawsuit challenging the Anchorage curfew ordinance on behalf of parents and teens who believed their constitutional rights were being violated.

In March 2001, Judge Rene Gonzalez ruled in favor of the group. The city has appealed the decision to the Alaska Supreme Court. The agency expects the case to be heard later this year, said Jennifer Rudinger, executive director of the group.

Bethel is among 100 communities the group has urged to repeal curfews.

''Curfews are traditionally a tool of martial law and have no place in a free society,'' Rudinger said. ''Curfews violate juveniles' rights to liberty and parents' rights to raise their children as they think best.''

The city council is looking into other ways of addressing juvenile crime. Meanwhile, Gregory is waiting for safer streets in his hometown.

''If they just sit around and do nothing about it, it is going to continue to happen,'' he said. ''We need the entire community. I can't do it alone.''

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