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10 juveniles warned in curfew's debut

The number of young people on Seventh Avenue in Ybor City seemed to shrink quickly as midnight came and Saturday gave way to Sunday.

With police officers issuing warnings to everyone who seemed younger than 18, most seemed unwilling to test Tampa's juvenile curfew now that it was being enforced.

Still, there were a few.

At 12:01 a.m. Sunday, Jennifer St. George, 16, of Lutz became the first person picked up for violating the ordinance since the City Council revised it. A day earlier, Jennifer could have just said she was waiting for her ride and been left alone. But this was the day police had chosen to get serious about sweeping young people off the streets.

"I just don't understand why you just don't let it go," she protested as Officer Veronica Hills and Sgt. Doug McKeen led her from a bench along Seventh Avenue to a holding area in a classroom at Hillsborough Community College. She was interviewed, searched, photographed and left to wait alone for her mother.

Adopted in 1994, Tampa's curfew bars youths 16 and under from city streets after 11 p.m. on weeknights and midnight on Saturdays and Sundays.

Until last weekend, police did not enforce the curfew because of fears it would not pass constitutional challenge. Those fears eased after the council revised the ordinance a few weeks ago to more closely resemble curfews upheld by the courts.

In all, police said, 10 juveniles were picked up off Ybor's streets between midnight and 4 a.m. This time, none were arrested; they were warned and released to their parents. But repeat violations could mean a trip to juvenile court and fines for parents.

At times, there were almost as many politicians on Ybor streets watching the crackdown as teenagers being snared by it. City Council members Scott Paine, Ronnie Mason and Bob Buckhorn were there, as was Mayor Dick Greco and his wife. Even former mayor and current congressional candidate Sandy Freedman showed up.

Officials said they did not expect many youths to test the curfew once enforcement began.

"These kids aren't dumb. They know what the rules of the game are," Buckhorn said.

Hills, McKeen and 14 other officers hit the streets shortly after 10 p.m. Saturday in teams of two. Their mission: to warn everyone under 17 to be gone by midnight unless they were with their parents.

Most, like McKeen, a 53-year-old accountant, were reserve officers working without pay.

Hills and McKeen patrolled Seventh Avenue between 15th Street, where the disco sounds from Club Hedo, Club Flamingo and The Rubb merged into a ragged throb, to the open air market at the intersection with 17th Street, across from where a man drummed on plastic buckets and two motorcycle officers kept cars off the closed avenue.

They walked down the center of the avenue, sizing up everyone who passed by. Some were protesters carrying signs and wearing T-shirts denouncing the curfew.

John Henson of Zephyrhills, 16, passed out leaflets for a group named Youth Freedom while he tried to sign up supporters for a campaign against the law. "It's blaming innocent victims," he said. "They're just trying to find someone to point a finger at."

Hills, 31, is from a different time. Her parents didn't give her a curfew _ she knew to be home by sunset, she said. "I think that was the way it was with most of my peers."

She and McKeen encountered Jennifer sitting with friends in El Centro Espanol, where 16th Street meets Seventh Avenue. Jennifer told them she was waiting for a ride.

"There's no ride that's going to come on Seventh Avenue and pick you up," Hills said before leading her away as her friends protested loudly.

An hour after midnight, she was still waiting for her mother to pick her up at HCC. She chatted with Freedman as a handful of other youths waited along with three City Council members and a crowd of journalists.

When Jennifer's mother arrived a few minutes later and signed for her freedom, the two left without saying a word.

Later, Ronald Burney, 15, of Brandon waited to find out if his parents would come get him _ the phone was busy every time someone tried to call.

He knows his parents want him home by midnight, he said, but sometimes he doesn't make it. He knew about the curfew, but the enforcement took him by surprise.

"Last week I was here around 2 o'clock in the morning walking around. They didn't say nothing to me," he said.

_ Times staff writer Jeffrey Gettleman contributed to this report.