Compassionate crackdown on random youth violence

    “I don’t care what your economic status is in life, you don’t have the right to beat somebody’s ass on the street! None!”

    That was Philadelphia Mayor Michael Nutter’s emotional response this afternoon when Daily News reporter Jan Ransom asked why he’d raised the issue of race in a church appearance on Sunday.

    Nutter rolled out his administration’s plan for dealing with packs of youths inflicting random violence in center city today, and I think he mostly got it right, in both tone and substance (read Elizabeth Fiedler’s report here).

    There will be beefed-up police presence in center city and university city on weekends, along with volunteers in t-shirts indicating they’re there to keep an eye out for public safety. The enforcement effort is important, and making some noise about it is important, too, so kids who might think of joining their rowdier friends for a jaunt will know there’s a real risk of arrest. And of course, it will give notice to parents who have some control over their kids’ behavior to tighten the leash.

    A couple weeks ago I sat in court for a hearing in the case of a youth arrested after the Saturday night mini-rampage on Walnut Street in June. The young man’s mom stood at the back of the courtroom fighting back tears. She said her son was a good student with no criminal record who’d finished school and was supposed to start college in the fall. It may be that he just followed the wrong crowd that night, and maybe a strong warning will keep some kids like that home.

    I doubt Nutter’s praise for high-achieving kids and his promise to expand recreation center hours and other programs will change the behavior of kids inclined toward random violence. But it was important to send a message to other constituents that he believes in kids, and isn’t some power-drunk assistant principal ready to whack anybody without a hall pass.

    And the announced plans to expand and enforce the youth curfews are important – not because they’ll keep every 16-year old in on Saturday night, but because they give police the right to take action if they see a pack of kids romping down 15th St. If you read the accounts of the mob attacks so far, one thing that stands out is police officers’ frustration when victims say they’re unable to identify their attackers. The police apparently felt they needed cause to stop kids they suspected were up to no good. Now if they see an ominous gathering the curfew policy gives them the right to intervene before there’s violence.

    Given center city’s renaissance in the past 20 years and its importance to the city’s economy, it would be foolhardy for any mayor not to try and get this stuff under control.

    Dealing with the root causes of behavior will take decades and the efforts of the nation, not just the city (Nutter noted today the city has 5,000 fewer federally-funded youth jobs than last year). But it’s important for Nutter to react to what’s happening now, and he’s made a good start.

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