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Curfew forum unleashes heated exchanges

(ran West, South, East editions)

The drive to pass a juvenile curfew in St. Petersburg is likely to encounter a rocky road, judging from a public forum last weekend that left one opponent shrieking at a City Council member.

Equally emotional and adamant were curfew supporters, one of whom walked out in the middle of the forum, apparently frustrated with the debate.

"This is just the beginning," said Lurlis Simmons, vice president of the Palmetto Park Homeowners Association, which hosted the forum and has endorsed a curfew. "It got a little heated there."

It's unclear if people changed their views because of the debate. It was clear that issues of race, selective enforcement and poor police-community relations will drive the curfew debate as much as the traditional concerns of safe neighborhoods and constitutionality.

"Black people are going to be the target group," said Alvelita Donaldson of the National People's Democratic Uhuru Movement.

If the curfew is passed, Donaldson said the Uhurus would hire a civil rights attorney to fight the ordinance.

"When you single out a group, and in this instance we're talking about youth . . . it becomes . . . a legal issue," she said.

St. Petersburg is only one of several Pinellas cities that have curfews on their agendas.

Pinellas Park passed a juvenile curfew last spring that prohibits anyone younger than 18 from being on the streets between 11 p.m. and 6 a.m. Sundays through Thursdays. On weekends and holidays, people younger than 18 cannot be outside without an adult between 12:01 a.m. and 7 a.m.

The first offense brings a warning for the juvenile and parents. The penalties for subsequent violations are tougher: Youths and their parents each can be fined up to $500, sentenced to up to six months in jail, or both. It does not matter whether the youth is a Pinellas Park resident.

The Pinellas Park curfew was passed unanimously, with only one citizen speaking out against it.

Kenneth City, with all council members agreeing, has given tentative approval to a curfew similar to that in Pinellas Park. The final vote is expected later this month.

The Kenneth City ordinance would prohibit anyone younger than 18 to "loiter, idle, wander, stroll or play in or upon the public streets, parks or other public places or other unsupervised places" between 11 p.m. and 6 a.m. weekdays and between 12:01 a.m. and 6 a.m. weekends and legal holidays.

It would be illegal for parents or guardians to allow children to violate the law. If a child is found out after curfew, the parent would be presumed to have allowed the child to break the law.

A parent would have two defenses. The first would be if the parents called the police and told them the child was missing. The other would be if the parents could show they used "reasonable care" and did not know the child had broken the curfew law.

Children and parents would receive a warning for the first violation. Subsequent violations could bring a fine of up to $500, up to six months in jail or both.

Largo, on the other hand, has had some hot debates over the idea even though it has not come up for a vote.

The forum Saturday morning at the Enoch Davis Center, 1111 18th Ave. S, was set up to gather opinions and information about the curfew. The Palmetto Park association is polling other homeowners groups for their thoughts on a possible curfew.

In opposition, Donaldson had company.

St. Petersburg Council member Ernest Fillyau vowed to vote against the curfew if it comes before council. The last thing some neighborhoods in southern St. Petersburg need is a juvenile curfew, he said.

Fillyau referred to a community torn apart last year by violence after a white police officer shot and killed a black motorist. The community cannot heal if such a curfew is passed, he said.

He also questioned the ability of the St. Petersburg police to enforce such a curfew.

Also opposed was Grace Harris, the mother of a 12-year-old boy who is home-schooled. Harris said it was hard to oppose a nighttime curfew, but a daytime curfew that targets suspended and expelled kids amounted to "martial law."

"When you okay selective enforcement, as you will be if you impose this curfew, not only will (the police) lose my respect, but so will you," Harris said to the council members who were present.

"This community may as well be renamed Little Russia. . . . I don't want the police force to be turned into babysitters. I want them to remain crime fighters. I don't buy the argument that this gives them one more tool. There are already enough laws in the books for any kind of illegal activity a person could get into."

She continued: "I don't believe it's a crime for a human to be outside during the daytime regardless of age. And frankly, I don't want the force that would protect me wasting their time . . . on raising other people's children."

After the meeting, she debated the issue with City Council member Jay Lasita, who is pushing the curfew. The debate grew so heated at one point, that Harris shrieked something at Lasita. After that, the conversation seemed to cool down.

Harris was not the only person who traded words with Lasita.

Lasita, who is pushing the establishment of a curfew, spoke to the 20-person group about the need for one.

"There's a lot of frustration out there among a lot of parents," he said. "It's not a police empowerment thing. . . . I look at it as a means of intervention. . . . We could divert those kids at an age where they could be diverted. This is not a north and south issue. This is not a total solution. It's a part of the solution."

He went on to say that "a curfew properly implemented can be a positive, not a negative."

That prompted Donaldson of the Uhurus to say, "You want to cause a major upheaval in our community."

Lasita: "If you make that a self-fulfilling prophecy."

Donaldson: "Self-fulfilling prophecy. I know what the history is. . . . This is not a personal attack on you, Mr. Lasita, these are serious political issues."

Lasita: "I'm not taking it personally. I don't think you understand the intent."

Donaldson: "So you're saying I'm not intelligent enough to understand what I'm hearing."

Lasita: "Curfew is intervention and juvenile justice. It's intervention, leadership and juvenile justice."

Lasita had plenty of support.

"Right now we're losing kids," said Simmons of the Palmetto Park Neighborhood Association. "A lot of kids are going to jail rather than get an education, which is what we want. . . . Right now, kids don't have respect for me, you, anyone else."