HUNTINGTON PARK — In a major crackdown aimed at wiping out graffiti and vandalism, the Huntington Park Police Department is enforcing a curfew that prohibits young people 18 and under from being on the streets after 10 p.m.
As part of the reinstituted enforcement of a 1967 ordinance that authorized the curfew and made loitering a misdemeanor, police officers are stopping young people and sending them home or detaining them at the police station before calling their parents to get them.
In the first weekend of enforcement (March 1 to 3), about 60 young people were detained, according to Mayor William Cunningham.
The crackdown, which has received mixed reaction from young people and approval from some parents, the school district and the Chamber of Commerce, comes at the request of the City Council, following a Feb. 20 meeting called by the mayor with school officials and the police department.
In an interview, Cunningham said the meeting and subsequent curfew enforcement was prompted by an incident in the early part of February, when businesses and town homes were sprayed with paint.
Graffiti, which costs the city $60,000 a year to remove, has been a recurring problem. According to a report submitted by the city administrator this week, a city crew assigned to clean up graffiti received 118 graffiti complaints in January and 326 in February.
Pointing to the report, Cunningham said, "That is a lot of graffiti. And the reason you don't see it is because we paint it over every day."
As part of its attempt to curb the problems, the police department also offers a $250 reward for tips leading to the arrest of people who draw graffiti or commit other vandalism. Loitering and graffiti convictions each carry a maximum $1,000 penalty and a six-month jail term.
The curfew, Cunningham said, "is not a big Gestapo thing. You have to take the good with the bad. When kids under 16 (sic) are out on the streets, they're up to no good."
Other council members echoed Cunningham in his support for renewed enforcement of the curfew law.
Councilman Tom Jackson, who has six children, attributed the graffiti to gangs.
'Beginning of Downfall'
"Graffiti was the beginning of the downfall of Huntington Park. The white community began to move out the day graffiti began appearing on walls. We have all this redevelopment going on and it won't succeed if it looks like a ghetto--and graffiti makes it look like a ghetto," he said in an interview Monday.
Adding that the graffiti is committed by gangs during the night, Jackson said, "Juveniles are the major culprits and we've got to put 'em away.
"We have to fight fire with fire. If they don't understand reason, they must understand fear. And that's what we're going to use. Fear."
One of the few people to take issue with the curfew is community activist Mary Ledesma, calling it no solution for graffiti or idle youth.
"I was at that (Feb. 20) meeting and I didn't hear anybody talking about programs to divert the young people's energy," she said. "All I heard was that they were going to knock heads and put them in jail."
But the council, including Councilman Jim Roberts, countered that there are sufficient outlets for young people in Huntington Park.
"We have plenty of recreation programs, and they're heavily used by these same youngsters," Roberts said. "You can't keep them busy 24 hours a day."
Other city and civic officials, as well as parents, also support the move.
Police Chief Geano Contessotto said in an interview this week that the curfew sweeps have been conducted periodically since 1967 and have been effective in combatting graffiti and vandalism. The action, he said, may result in better parental supervision over children.
"There is no quick, easy solution," Contessotto said, "but I think it'll help."
Teresa Solorzano, a mother of five children who was interviewed in an informal Times survey, agreed with Contessotto.
"We parents have to be responsible for our children," she said. "My children are not out at night, and the oldest is 17."
The curfew sweeps "may be punishment for the children, but also a lesson for the parents. If my son were to do something wrong, I would prefer to have the police call me then to find him dead or drugged up," she said. "I think the law will help us have better control over our children."
George Garcia, president of the Chamber of Commerce, which supports the curfew, agreed. He said young people should be home preparing for school, though he acknowledged that young people would object to the curfew.
Andrew Cazares, superintendent of Region 2 for the Los Angeles Unified School District, which includes Huntington Park schools, said the schools favor upholding the law.
Pointing out that students and parents needed to be informed about the enforcement, Cazares said he hoped that when students are stopped by police officers "they would be approached in a judicious manner that does not take away civil rights."