Amid an emotional debate over keeping youths safe from the violence on the streets of Baltimore, the City Council began working yesterday to reinstate a nighttime curfew.
Five days after the police chief suspended Baltimore's curfew for juveniles, the council returned from summer recess to begin revising the law to resolve constitutional concerns.
At an emergency session at noon, Councilman Lawrence A. Bell III announced plans to alter the city's year-old law to have it enforced again by the end of the week. Police Commissioner Thomas C. Frazier suspended the curfew on Friday after the state's highest court struck down an almost identical one in Frederick.
Hours earlier, a crowd of youths threw soda bottles and batteries at Mr. Bell and Councilman Martin O'Malley while they were on a midnight tour of Park Heights Avenue to document the need for a curfew. No one was injured.
"No crime is palatable, but crimes affecting the children of our city are the hardest on our spirits," Mr. Bell said in a voice shaking with emotion.
After another councilman confronted him, Mr. Bell went on to detail his experiences from the previous night -- watching teen-agers break into a pool, smoke marijuana, drink beer and hang out on the corner with older drug dealers.
Councilman Carl Stokes said he was offended by Mr. Bell's comments on television that some youths were "acting like animals." Mr. Stokes also questioned the premise of a nighttime curfew, saying he believes it only keeps children confined to homes without air-conditioning during the summer.
"Let's put the police out, and let's make our communities safe and not blame the kids who get shot on a hot summer night," he said.
It was one of several exchanges in the chambers of City Hall
yesterday that were infused with broader political significance. Mr. Stokes, who represents East Baltimore's 2nd District, is running for the council presidency against Mr. Bell, who represents West Baltimore's 4th District, and three other candidates.
The rivals for mayor -- City Council President Mary Pat Clarke and Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke -- also held competing news conferences to offer their positions on the curfew.
Mrs. Clarke, who is challenging the mayor's bid for a third term in September's Democratic primary, argued that a curfew should be reinstated immediately to protect youths and to shield communities from youthful violent behavior.
Mr. Schmoke "would like to ruminate about the curfew while children are shot and children are terrorizing our neighborhoods at night," she said. "We have to restore order and solve these problems and protect our children."
Mayor Schmoke said he supports a curfew, but he also expressed concern that the council was trying to push through amendments without enough public hearings and a thorough legal review.
To avoid court challenges, the police commissioner suspended the curfew, which prohibits youths under age 17 from being outside their homes after 11 p.m. Sunday through Thursday and midnight Fridays and Saturdays. The city solicitor had concluded Baltimore's curfew is unconstitutional because it contains the same vague areas as the Frederick law.
"I don't want to rush to judgment," Mr. Schmoke said. "We ought to make the distinction between doing it fast and doing it right."
Personally, the mayor said, he is not a big fan of curfews because of the potential for police harassment and confrontations with teen-agers.
Mrs. Clarke had vowed to call back the council tomorrow to vote on amending the curfew. But it was unclear last night whether the council's public safety subcommittee, chaired by Mr. Bell, could come up with the amendments by then.
After last night's work session, the council is holding a public hearing at 5 p.m. today on the curfew.
Mr. Bell's committee met with legal experts, including Anne Rollins, an assistant city attorney for Frederick, to discuss revising the law. The Schmoke administration already had put in amendments in May which the council now is reviewing as part of an overhaul of the law.
Frederick already has rewritten large sections of its curfew law, which like Baltimore, had vaguely allowed children to remain outside late at night for "bona fide" activities without specifying them. That was one of the main reasons the Maryland Court of Appeals recently struck down the Frederick curfew as unconstitutional.
Mr. Bell and Mr. O'Malley were criticized by some Park Heights leaders for their late-night tour with a contingent of reporters.
"We're just tired of people dumping on Park Heights. We had no idea they were going to be walking with camera crews through the area," said Michael Johnson, a council candidate in the 5th District, who pointed out that neither councilman represents the district.