FEEL THE BURN

Denver's new curfew-enforcement program is supposed to keep kids out of trouble. So far, though, it's the adults who are doing all the brawling.

And the fight's just beginning.
Councilwoman Mary DeGroot had been out of town for just about an hour last Thursday evening when the calls started coming from the mayor's office to members of the advisory board of the Washington Park Recreation Center, which is located in DeGroot's district. Mayor Wellington Webb would like to meet with the boardmembers the next day, they were told: Could they be there at five?

Even with that short notice, four members of the volunteer board were at the center when Webb's entourage started piling in. The mayor pulled up--late--with wife Wilma. Beth McCann, former manager of public safety and current coordinator (at the same salary) of the Safe City Initiative, joined the parade, as did Bruce Alexander, manager of the city's parks and recreation department, and his lieutenant in charge of recreation, B.J. Brooks. (The director of the Washington Park center itself was out of town on a long-planned vacation.) In all, more than a dozen city officials descended on the four boardmembers. "I haven't gotten that kind of attention in months," says DeGroot.

And for almost two months, she'd been trying to convince the city that rec centers located in public parks--where a curfew goes into effect at 11 p.m.--were not the right places to hold curfew-violating teens. "I do not oppose the curfew program or the idea of holding curfew violators until parents claim them," she wrote Webb on June 16. "However, I am very opposed to turning our recreation centers into juvenile detention centers. Bruce Alexander refused the request of the South High School senior class to hold their after-prom event at the Washington Park Recreation Center...Bruce said if he allowed South High to use the center after hours, he would have to allow any group that asked. I was persuaded that this made sense. But now it is okay to bring the `bad' kids in after curfew. This does not make sense."

So far, though, that argument has been lost on the city--and Alexander didn't repeat it Friday night, either.

At that command performance, boardmembers listened in shock as city officials outlined how the center would become the third site for the SafeNite After Curfew program. On Thursday, Friday and Saturday nights, kids picked up in the southern portion of the city for violating curfew would be brought by police to the center, where they'd be "entertained" until their parents came to get them or until 5 a.m., whichever came sooner. That the facility, the city's busiest, opens just an hour later to all comers did not seem a major concern. In fact, none of the boardmembers' objections--and there were plenty, many of them echoes of DeGroot's earlier points--made much of a dent. The proposal seemed a done deal.

And in fact, at the very moment McCann was describing why the city-owned facility was her "first choice" because of its ideal access, the Safe City office was faxing out an advisory noting that after a week's postponement, the curfew program would begin in earnest on July 15. "Since we'll have the third site ready to open in just seven more days," the release quoted Webb, "it just made sense to open all three sites at the same time."

Particularly since that third site had yet to be officially designated.
It's a sure bet that residents of this quiet upscale neighborhood will complain when they learn that a detention center is setting up shop nearby. "Somebody who buys a $500,000 house is just not going to be thrilled to find a juvenile detention center across the street," says one boardmember.

But they're not the only ones objecting to the locale. Councilwoman Ramona Martinez, who'd been alerted to the meeting by DeGroot's office, arrived in time to announce that she'd found an alternative site for the south side: A church on South Federal had volunteered its building. And unlike Washington Park, she said, this neighborhood (like the two already chosen as SafeNite sites) would welcome the program. After all, according to the city's own statistics, the mere presence of such a facility discourages crimes--and that part of Martinez's district could use all the help it can get.

By making the suggestion, Martinez wasn't winning any popularity contests with critics who complain that the program is discriminatory. "The issue with me," she says, "is, hey, we know where the problems are. I was willing to bite the bullet. Just plain logic would tell you that you want to put the center where the problems are occurring."

But logic didn't have a part in this power play. Already that day, Action for a Better Community had led a protest on the steps of City Hall, complaining that the curfew program was discriminatory, since the two recreation centers already signed on for the program are in heavily Latino and African-American neighborhoods. And here, just five hours later, the city apparently had decided that Washington Park was the answer to that complaint.

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