The Los Angeles Police Department has agreed to ease daytime curfew laws amid complaints that officers are indiscriminately handing out tens of thousands of tickets to high school students. Officers will stop most sweeps during the first hour of classes and no longer ticket students on campus.
Outside Roosevelt High School in Boyle Heights, Mathew Hernandez welcomed the new policy. He recalled the time police picked him up about five minutes before classes started.
“We had went to Carl's Jr. around the corner to get something to eat in the morning – me and a couple of friends," Hernandez said. "We turned around and the cops were there. And they were doing it like a raid."
He says the officers sealed the exits and wouldn't let anybody out.
Hernandez, 16, clad in a black T-shirt with a big yellow smiley face on the front, said that day was unusual for him. He is rarely late for school.
“I hate being late," he said. "I can’t miss school. I need to be in school.”
Los Angeles police officers frisked Hernandez and placed him in a police car that day. They took him to school, wrote him a curfew ticket, and sent him off to class.
“I thought he was just kidding," Hernandez' mother Melisa Lopez said as she remembered when he came home from school. "I was like all ‘what happened?' I didn’t yell at him, I didn’t scream at him. Because I have an open conversation with my children.”
Lopez is single with three other kids. She bags groceries at an Albertsons store. Her son faced a $250 fine.
“My god, I’m like I can’t even pay for that. I mean I’m barely making ends meet right now."
Over a five year period ending in 2009, the LAPD wrote 47,000 tickets during curfew sweeps outside high schools and middle schools, the Public Counsel’s Hernan Vera said.
“Kids in L.A. being ticketed by the Los Angeles Police Department minutes before the bell rang. Kids being ticketed, handcuffed and put into police cars for being late for schools," he said. "Kids being stopped at the entrance to the school by a phalanx of officers.”
After lobbying by civil rights lawyers, parents and community activists, LAPD Chief Charlie Beck has issued an order that relaxes curfew sweeps. The chief’s ordered his officers to generally end sweeps during the first hour of classes, to always ask students if they have a legitimate excuse to be out of school and to stop ticketing students on school grounds.
Vera called it a major step forward, and pointed to studies that suggest punitive approaches like curfew tickets discourage school attendance. Roosevelt High School social studies teacher Jorge Lopez said he's seen that firsthand.
“One of the things that we started noticing was that there was a culture of fear dominating on campus with the students and police," Lopez said. "We are very excited as educators to see that LAPD moved forward on this directive.”
Hundreds of students still face fines, attorney Zoe Rawsen said. She works pro bono representing them.
“I’ve handled 40 to 50 cases in the last year and every single time I’ve arrived at juvenile traffic court, there is a line outside the door of students and families."
Activists said they’ve found that nearly 90 percent of curfew tickets have gone to black and Latino students, who make up about three-quarters of the L.A. Unified School District's enrollment. Rawsen recounts one client, now graduated and headed to college, who received four tickets.
“At that particular time in his life, he had a lot of family instability. The family moved about five times in the school year. The mother entered a homeless shelter. He later entered a youth shelter," she said.
"Getting to school was a real challenge at times. And nobody simply asked him, what’s going on?”
She said that unless she’s able to get a juvenile court referee to throw out the tickets, her client has said he faces the question of paying those tickets or paying for his college classes.