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Largo's curfew delivers an unexpected calm

Since police began enforcing the city's new curfew one month ago, officers and some residents say nighttime has quieted in Largo.

"It's unbelievable," said Bob Savilla, president of the Whispering Pines Mobile Home Park Association. "It's like all of a sudden somebody pulled the sidewalks away."

The drug peddlers who used to clog the corners near Savilla's home after the well-intentioned were off to sleep have disappeared, he said.

And in other parts of the city, the absence of youth after curfew hours _ 11 p.m. on weekdays and midnight on weekends and holidays _ is noticeable, police say.

No more kids walking, standing and chatting around the Mobil gas station, the Denny's restaurant, the pool hall and the 24-hour family diner on Missouri Avenue, said Officer Mark Shireman.

And that guy who routinely detailed and shined his customized Cadillac at the carwash on Rosery Road at 1 a.m. apparently has rearranged his schedule, Shireman said,

"You just don't see as many juveniles out as you used to," he said.

A few months ago, there was no crime in what many of them were doing _ just hanging out. But city commissioners made the curfew law in Largo and police began enforcing it April 1.

Yet, it wasn't aggressive enforcement tactics that led to the drastic change some people see in parts of the city, police say. They had given only 16 warnings as April came to a close. None of the 16 youths were actually charged with curfew violation, a misdemeanor that carries a maximum fine of $500 or a six-month jail term. First-timers get warnings. A second offense would result in the criminal charge.

And although parents can be charged if they defy the ordinance by not restricting their children, no parents were issued warnings, Detective Madeline Koceja said.

Actually, police had expected a bit more activity. In Pinellas Park, where a similar curfew has been in effect more than a year, officers issued an average of 15 warnings each night for the first few months. Largo was expecting at least one a night, Koceja said.

"I didn't expect the numbers to be this low, but I'm glad they are," Koceja said.

Before officers started enforcing the curfew, they made sure residents were fully educated, Koceja says. Commissioners approved the curfew in February, but enforcement didn't start for another six weeks. Officers talked of the curfew with youngsters they approached at night. They passed out brochures in neighborhoods and at schools.

Now, there simply aren't many teens on the street. Young people and their parents are voluntarily obeying the curfew, police say.

Shireman hasn't handed out a single ticket, he said. "I haven't found anyone to cite," he said.

But whether the curfew is really affecting crime won't be revealed for at least several more weeks, after police have compiled statistics to show how much crime occurred in April. Juvenile crime in Largo has been on the rise in recent years, police say. Getting teens off the streets at night will be key in getting the crime rate down, they have said.

In the first month, however, few youths who got warnings were also engaged in wrongdoing outside of the curfew.

One in 16 was in the act of committing another crime, which was trespassing, Koceja said. Two others were drunk, and another violator was a runaway.

But 13 had previous criminal records, said Koceja, who is tracking the cases. One youngster who had been suspended from school was caught violating the curfew sometime between 7:30 a.m. and 4 p.m., when kids who have been suspended are forbidden from being in public.

"I wanted to know if we were actually stopping kids who could be potential problems," Koceja said.

Take the 14-year-old who was riding a bike near Walsingham and Indian Rocks roads at 1:05 a.m. Koceja was suspicious because, well, "He was riding along at 1 o'clock with no light on his bicycle in a heavily constructed area," she said.

The boy had been arrested several times in the past for burglary, Koceja said. As Koceja approached him, another kid with him took off running, she said.

And in other cases the curfew has shielded youngsters from becoming crime victims, Koceja believes.

Police caught a 14-year-old girl in a truck with some men who were between 18 and 20 or so, Koceja said. It was about 2 a.m. and they were traveling near Highland and East Bay. The girl was riding with the men of her own will, but Koceja believes it was a potentially dangerous situation. Police learned that the mother thought her daughter was out babysitting that night. Koceja said she did not know why the officer who issued the warning initially stopped the truck, before determining the girl inside was underage.

In every curfew case, police call a parent or guardian to pick up the child, or in some cases, officers may take the youth home themselves.

That's what happened to Tina Konstantatos, a 16-year-old who lives in Belleair. Tina said she and some friends were riding one Friday night through Largo on their way to a party on Clearwater Beach. It was 12:30 a.m. and the car she was riding in was going about five miles over the 40 mph speed limit, Tina said.

"When they saw us, they were like how old are you guys?" Tina said of police. "It's not like we were like doing drugs or anything."

Police stopped the car and made the driver pull into a 7-Eleven parking lot. Another person in the car was underage and the police called their parents, who came to pick up the teens, Tina said.

The police gave Tina a curfew warning. And now, she said, she knows better. "I think I'll try to stay out of Largo, or if I am, I'll duck in the car."

Other teens also are rearranging the way they do things in Largo.

Jim Pierce, the chairman of the neighborhood watch group in the Old Southwest neighborhood, said he has noticed little change in his area since the curfew, probably because there were few problems with youth even before it was enforced. But Pierce did notice a disadvantage for his 17-year-old son, Jason, who decided not to eat at a local restaurant with friends after a successful performance in a school play.

By the time Jason and other cast members cleaned the stage and arrived at the restaurant, they realized they may not beat the curfew, Pierce said.

Some chose to leave the restaurant rather "than to have a good time for a little bit," Pierce said.