Concerns about Silver Spring spur consideration of curfew

(Jeffrey Porter/For The Washington Post) - Downtown Silver Spring.

Downtown Silver Spring is supposed to be one of Montgomery County’s gems, and at times it sure feels that way: Late-evening crowds, families, restaurants, bars — all sprung from what was once a tired landscape.

But the debate over a proposed countywide curfew has revealed far-reaching concerns about safety in the bustling area just north of the District.

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“The experiment that is downtown Silver Spring is on the precipice now of failing,” Montgomery County Council President Valerie Ervin (D-Silver Spring) said Tuesday during a public hearing on the possible curfew. With a busy transit center under construction and a concert hall slated to open, “thousands more people” from across the Washington region will be taking advantage of “this wonderful open-space concept,” she said.

“Now we’ve created this space that’s known to youth in all jurisdictions,” Ervin said. But “people really do not feel safe any longer.”

Today’s Silver Spring represents the culmination of years of planning, investment and rebranding that turned a depressed swath of Maryland suburb into a vibrant destination. But law enforcement and business representatives argue that police need a new tool to tamp down bad actors and thuggery in a place that wants to be hip, not dangerous. The curfew, proposed by County Executive Isiah Leggett (D), would cover people younger than 18 and start at 11 p.m. during the week and just after midnight Friday and Saturday. Violators could be required to perform community service, and their parents could have to take parenting classes.

Uncertainty on council

County Council members said they remain unsure whether a curfew — like ones in neighboring Prince George’s County and the District — is a good idea. Several council members raised pointed questions at Tuesday’s hearing in Rockville.

Teenagers who would be subject to the proposed rules also voiced opposition. “You want us to be scholars, you want us to be athletes, and you tie our hands by shortening an already too-short day,” said Connor Jobes, an incoming junior at Walter Johnson High School in Bethesda.

But many officials said they are so alarmed by a recent gang fight in Silver Spring that, even if a curfew is not judged to be the answer, they are planning a concerted effort to try to halt the bustling neighborhood from backsliding. Former county executive Doug Duncan made a rare appearance in the hearing audience to lend his support to the notion that action is needed to protect the county effort that he helped spearhead in Silver Spring.

“We put a lot of investment and time in Silver Spring. We can’t just walk away and say, ‘We’re done.’ . . . We have to make sure people feel safe,” Duncan said. He did not stake out a position on the curfew, but said the council clearly understood that more needs to be done to improve safety.

Duncan said he remains encouraged by Silver Spring’s emergence. “Just 10 years ago, there was nothing there. I do feel good about that,” he said.

Parts of Silver Spring have blossomed, with Ethio­pian and numerous other restaurants, cafes, movie theaters and a new civic building and gathering space at Veterans Plaza. But law enforcement authorities said the neighborhood tenor shifts in some spots as the hour gets later.

A melee this month helped trigger the curfew legislation.

The incident involved more than 80 people — many of them gang members — fighting for more than two hours in downtown Silver Spring, police said. One of the groups came by Metrorail, the other by bus.

“If those events had not happened that night, I don’t believe we’d be entertaining any of this,” council member Marc Elrich (D-At Large) said at Tuesday’s meeting.

“That was the straw that broke the camel’s back,” said Montgomery police Chief J. Thomas Manger.

The gang’s night

It began about 10:30 p.m. July 1 when 50 to 75 teenagers and young adults — many of them members of a street gang called “88-mob” — exited Metro’s Silver Spring Station, said county police Lt. Robert Carter, a deputy commander of the Silver Spring district. They gathered near the corner of Georgia Avenue and Colesville Road, in the heart of downtown Silver Spring.

About 30 minutes later, more than 30 members and associates of another gang — the Hampshire Tower Crew — exited a bus that had come down Georgia Avenue from the north, Carter said.

Members of 88-mob are mostly from Prince George’s and Montgomery, while the Hampshire Tower Crew members hail primarily from Prince George’s, Carter said.

Using text messaging and social media, the two gangs summoned each other for what Carter termed a “flash-mob fight.” The fighting was underway by midnight. Officers were outnumbered and had trouble keeping up with the fights, let alone dispersing the crowd.

A female was stabbed and was taken to Suburban Hospital, Carter said.

Officers finally restored order by 2:30 a.m. “It took over 40 officers to bring this melee under control,” Carter said.

Officers arrested only about five people, who were charged with disorderly conduct and failure to obey orders, he said.

Had a curfew been in place, they could have delivered stern warnings to leave and, if they weren’t obeyed, quickly started locking up gang members, Carter said.

Carter said that the curfew should be countywide but that it would be used to target problem areas and problem behavior.

“We’re not going to be backing up the prisoner transport van to the back of the Majestic Theater [and say], ‘Hey all you kids coming out of the Harry Potter movie, everybody under 18, in the back of the wagon.’ I mean, we’re just not going to do that.”

Rather, officers would use the law when responding to calls of suspicious situations, loud groups or emergencies. “We’re trying to enact a curfew law so that when we do have trouble, or we see trouble on the horizon, we can stop it,” Carter said.

He ticked off statistics he said demonstrated the needed for the curfew:

●77 street robberies in downtown Silver Spring in the past 12 months, 25 of which involved juvenile suspects or victims.

●26 assaults involving a weapon in downtown Silver Spring in the past 12 months, nine of which involved juvenile suspects or victims.

●545 calls for fights in progress in downtown Silver Spring, 218 of which police were able to verify were actual fights.

In practice, Carter said, officers would give kids a warning before arresting them under the curfew law. He said they would tell a teenager, “Look, it’s time to go home.”

Young voices in opposition

A few dozen young people showed up in what for most were the unfamiliar confines of council chambers.

There is, of course, a difference between schlepping to a public hearing and clicking the “Attending” button on a Facebook protest page, which more than 6,394 people had done before Tuesday’s hearing. While organizers were rallying supporters to show up, one enthusiast posted: “well I can’t physically be there but in all other ways, I’m completely there!!!!!!!”

Some of those who came testified, but more sat quietly as the adults debated the issue.

In interviews, they offered a staunch critique.

Mason Remaley, 17, of Bethesda said he’s not persuaded by the argument that police need a new tool essentially giving them legal backing to disperse groups that concern them. “They can’t do that right now because it’s wrong. There are so many issues that causes. Racial profiling is one of them,” Remaley said.

Charlie Carter, 16, of Olney said gang members would not be discouraged by a curfew. “Especially if they are engaging in blatantly illegal activities, why would another law stop them from breaking another law?” he asked.

Council member Craig Rice (D-Upcounty) said he’s concerned any curfew would be imposed “on our good kids.”

“The youth were very convincing,” Rice said. “I was kind of on the fence initially. I’m now leaning toward thinking there’s not going to be a way to come up with a curfew system that’s fair and balanced.”

 
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