Pensacola, Florida
Sunday December 21st 2014

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The Answer’s Question?

By Jeremy Morrison

The Sheriff asked the question once more. He seemed fixated. Refusing to drop it.

“Let me state the question again,” said Escambia County Sheriff David Morgan. “What is our desired outcome?”

No one at the meeting seemed to be giving him a satisfactory answer. Pensacola City Councilman John Jerralds certainly wasn’t.

“I believe everybody here who is alive and breathing knows what the situation is,” Jerralds said.

The councilman had scheduled the Monday, Nov. 14 forum in an effort to sell community leaders on a teen curfew. Jerralds wants the youths off the street by 11 p.m. on weeknights and midnight on the weekends.

The curfew concept is a pet project for Councilman Jerralds. He’s been pushing for it for more than a year.

“We need to try something to give society some relief,” Jerralds said a couple of weeks before the meeting.

According to Jerralds, a curfew would help cut down on teen crime. Other cities, such as Mobile, have enacted similar curfews. Jerralds is proposing one based on a Jacksonville-model.

“Children that are unsupervised during certain hours have opportunities to do things that are not productive,” he said.

But just as the councilman would tell those at the meeting, it wasn’t just about crime. There was also a smidgen of social engineering.

“We want to reconnect the children with their parents,” Jerralds said, explaining that a curfew could have offshoot effects such as lower school-dropout rates and fewer teen pregnancies.

The councilman gathered together law enforcement and education officials, as well as representatives from the city and county. He painted them a portrait of a darkened night terrorized by up-to-no-good kids who would either be drinking themselves silly at the beach or puking their underage guts out along Palafox Street.

Jerralds threw his true-believer oomph behind the argument—urging people not to “close our eyes, bury our heads in the sand and pretend nothing is wrong”—but the councilman received some push back.

“I’m not really sure—11 p.m.?” said Norm Ross, deputy superintendent of the Escambia County School District. “I’m not really comfortable with that.”

“When you were 16 or 17 did you want your mom or dad down with you at the beach?” asked Escambia County Administrator Randy Oliver.

The councilman briskly brushed the criticism aside. These men obviously weren’t getting it.

“I grew up on lock down, because my parents had something for me that was worse than jail,” Jerralds said, later explaining how “Children have too much time. When we were growing up we didn’t have that much time.”

In addition to a nighttime curfew, the councilman is also proposing a daytime curfew which would run during school hours. This aspect seemed to warm up Gerald Boone, chairman of the Escambia County School Board.

“I’ve always felt that teenagers were begging for discipline, and a curfew is just another form of discipline,” Boone said, adding that a nighttime curfew would probably cut back on teen traffic accidents.

And while Jerralds gathered some steam for his curfew from the school district, the agencies that would be charged with actually enforcing such a rule were taking a more cautious position. If a teen curfew is enacted, law enforcement would be tasked with the on-the-ground logistics.

Pensacola Police Chief Chip Simmons told the Councilman that he was concerned with the manpower such a job would require, as well as how officers would immediately ascertain who was underage and who was a legal adult without delving beyond the surface (which could become both time consuming and legally-sticky).

“I think the manpower-needs and the exemptions would need to be hatched out pretty well,” Simmons told those gathered at the meeting.

Under Jerralds plan, teenagers would be exempt from the curfew if they needed to be out late due to work or school-related activities. Questions were raised about how officers could know if a teen was legitimately out past hours, or if it would even be legal to stop a person suspected of being too young.

Other issues brought up during the meeting concerned punitive measures: a teen offender’s parents could ultimately end up in trouble for their offspring’s broken curfew.

If parents were not able to pay a levied fine, Jerralds said, “Then comes community service hours.”

The next day, Sheriff Morgan leaned back in his desk chair and pondered for a moment before offering up his synopsis.

“A thorny bush,” he said. “My friends in the medical field will tell you, ‘I can treat your symptoms until the day that you die.”

Morgan threw out his repetitive question again. He had yet to get a good answer. What is the real issue?

“We all know what the answer is, it’s poor parenting,” the Sheriff said. “Any reasonable, thinking person would understand it’s not a function of law enforcement.”

Morgan lays the ills of youth at the doorstep of their parents. His job, he clarified, is to deal with problems when they become crimes. If a curfew is enacted, he plans to deal with the newly minted ‘crime,’ but doubts the effort will have any effect on the real ‘problem.’

“The question is not, ‘can I do it?’” Morgan said. “Of course I can do it. But if you’re asking me … ‘Is this the answer to the problem?’ The answer is no.”

The sheriff also has his doubts as to the less tangible aspects of Jerrald’s curfew plan. He’s not so sure a government-mandated curfew would create tighter family bonds.

“I think we’re a little bit off the reservation,” he said. “I was waiting any moment there to hear it was going to cure athlete’s foot and world hunger.”

Pensacola City Councilwoman Megan Pratt delved a little deeper. Beyond the logistics and possible effects, is enacting a curfew the right thing to do? Is that government’s role?

“If you have a city-wide curfew, are you undermining parents’ options?” Pratt asked, adding that “a lot of discussion” needs to be had in order to ascertain why exactly a curfew is needed.

That was pretty much the general feel from the folks at Jerralds’ forum, too. No one seemed anxious to immediately throw the curfew off the table, but officials were also hesitant about diving in. Jerralds had hoped to see the curfew in place on the other side of the new year, but for now he has only a continuance of the conversation.
Sheriff Morgan said he appreciated the conversation, but remained hesitant to jump on the bandwagon of good intentions. He seems to think Jerralds is stuck on the wrong answer to an elusive question.

“I treat symptoms,” Morgan said. “I don’t cure the major causes.”