The Daily

Less Liberty in Philly

Violent youth mobs prompt curfew — and debate over whether it’ll work

By Karen Keller
August 10, 2011

So much for brotherly love. Violent youth gangs have gotten so bad in Philadelphia that police plan on injecting a heavy dose of tough love in the form of a 9 p.m. youth curfew on weekends. But curfews don’t work, a criminal justice researcher told The Daily. And using the term “flash mobs” — as most media outlets have been calling groups who use social media to organize public violence — isn’t helping either, two new media experts said.

July 29 was a bad day in Philly. About two dozen youths robbed and beat random people downtown. One man was kicked so hard that he ended up with a fractured skull. Police eventually made four arrests — including an 11-year-old.
Mayor Michael Nutter had harsh words for the black community and the unruly youth.

“You have damaged your own race,” said Nutter, who is black.

Police plan to fine parents of kids out past curfew, and they also plan to keep youth centers open later on the weekend.

But in a study of “several hundred” criminal justice administrators, curfews were tied “dead last” at the bottom of the list of effective youth crime-prevention tools, said Jeffrey Butts, director for the Research and Evaluation Center at John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York.

“The only people that think [curfews are] effective are police chiefs and mayors — because it sounds good,” he said.

Butts claims research shows curfews eat away at police resources and cops often end up using racial profiling to decide which kids to arrest, he said. Then the kids who get arrested over curfew violations are brought into the criminal justice system prematurely.

“You’re risking their future [by arresting a kid] more than being in the flash mob,” Butts said.

Charles Williams, a youth violence expert at Drexel University who works with Philadelphia police, said he’s happy the city is starting a curfew — but admits it’s only a part of the solution.

“This is a problem that can’t be solved through government prevention, only family and community intervention,” Williams said.

Youth “flash mob” violence is a phenomenon happening all over the country: in Chicago’s most touristy area, and at the Wisconsin State Fair last week. Cleveland and other towns have banned flash mobs altogether — a move new media experts call ridiculous.

Bill Wasik, a magazine editor who coined the term “flash mob” in 2003, said it’s unconstitutional to ban people’s right to assemble.

Wasik used email to organize the first “flash mob” when he got a crowd of people to go to a Manhattan Macy’s and pretend they were interested in buying the same rug.

“The media is making people fear the technology,” said Wasik, editor at Wired magazine and author of “And Then There’s This: How Stories Live and Die in Viral Culture.”

“At this point, social media is how we do anything,” he said. “If you’re in a situation where you want to cause trouble then you’re going to use social media also.”

Besides, not every large gathering leads to bad things.

“The Cairo flash mob had a very good result,” said Paul Levinson, communications and media professor at Fordham University.