Curfew Working After 2 Weeks, Says ACP Chester Williams
The curfew in Belize City has been in effect for more than two weeks now. The concept is that any youth under eighteen years of age, not accompanied by an adult, who is found on the streets of the city after nine at night, will be detained. So far the initiative first broached by Eastern Division South Commander Chester Williams has met with mixed reviews from stakeholders, pertinent organizations like the Human Development Ministry and observers – some very much for, some very much against, and some in the middle. But reactions to concept aside, how’s the initiative been working on the ground? Today, Assistant Commissioner of Police Williams explained that, quite simply, it’s been working.
ACP Chester Williams, Regional Commander, Eastern Division South
“Since we commenced we have picked up about eight or nine children off the streets and we dealt with them with their parents and social workers. When it comes to females we take them straight home and then the parents are asked to bring them back in the morning time and we deal with them with the Social Department. In most cases the parents say they can’t control them. Those are the main concerns that the parents are having with these children.”
“So what has been the outcome when the Police have found children to be out beyond the curfew hours?”
ACP Chester Williams
“What we do in the first instance, so as not to apply the law in the strict sense, which as you know allows the Police to arrest and charge the parent and take the parent to count, but so as not to do that…what we are doing in the first instance is give the parents a written warning explaining the law to them and exactly where their child was found. In that warning letter it states to them clearly that if the child is found again on the streets unsupervised, what the consequences will be.”
“What has been the reaction of the youths themselves?”
ACP Chester Williams
“We are seeing now that we are not having that large number of children on the streets again. I can tell you that for many nights we are out there and do not encounter any. I would hope that the parents continue this to ensure that they keep their children at home. I will say that if parents abide by the rules of the curfew there will be no need for us to pick up any child during the course of the night.”
A Look at All Sides of the Curfew Debate
The curfew for minors is a topic that is being hotly debated across the land. ACP Chester Williams believes that it is the answer to keeping minors away from urban crime and gang activity. But in many sectors, it is out rightly rejected because it is in contravention to the rights of the child and in previous instances; it has not been the solution to curb crime. So where is the middle ground to keeping teenagers away from the claws of the gangs? Williams is meeting with stakeholders to find that out. News Five’s Duane Moody talks to all sides, including a minor who was subjected to the lockdown.
ACP Chester Williams, Regional Commander, Eastern Division South [File: March 17th, 2016]
“I have given instructions to my police officers that anywhere a minor is found on the street at night after nine p.m.; that minor will be detained and taken to the police station. He will be kept in custody and the next day morning, the parent will have to come for the child.”
Duane Moody, Reporting
The unofficial implementation of a clampdown on unaccompanied minors after nine p.m. in the south side of Belize City has stirred a firestorm. The imposed curfew is wide ranging, it essentially affects all children seventeen years and younger, including primary-school-aged minors. But the targeted group is in fact teenagers—those, who for some time now, are being recruited by gangs to commit violent crimes.
ACP Chester Williams [File: March 17th, 2016]
“The longer we take, the more the streets will be bleeding. We need to bring an end to the violence on the street and that is one way that I believe that we can assist our law-abiding citizens to feel free and safe in our community.”
A curfew is only imposed when governments cannot maintain public order. It’s normally put into effect in times of martial law or hurricanes and disasters and when the regular apparatus of the state cannot take control.
Now, Belize was the fifth country to ratify the UN Convention on the Rights of a Child back in May of 1990. According to the convention, curfews typically restrict children to their homes during nighttime hours and are contrary to children’s right to associate with one another.
Ivan Yerovi, Country Representative, UNICEF
“I think it is a measure which UNICEF totally disagrees with it. Probably the good intention of reaching parents—it is a good intention—however reaching parents by penalizing children and by taking children into custody is not the right way.”
Luwani Cayetano, Child Protection Officer, UNICEF Belize
“Curfews tend to target the most vulnerable so there is a lot of discrimination going on there. Curfews don’t really engage what the root causes of the problems are.”
The first time a statutory instrument for a curfew was signed in Belize was back in 1999. Minors, sixteen and younger in Belize City and Dangriga, were not allowed to leave their homes after eight p.m. In October 2004, the Police and Human Development Departments effected a curfew on children thirteen years and under found on Belize City streets between eight p.m. and six a.m. They were picked up, taken to their homes or held until a parent or guardian was located. Then in summer of 2007, another curfew was reintroduced in the Old Capital to protect children from criminal activities. Now fast track to 2016, the Ministry of Human Development agrees with the objective of child protection, but has concerns about the methodology.
Judith Alpuche, C.E.O., Ministry of Human Development, Social Transformation & Poverty Alleviation
“We are trying to see how we can leverage all that we have in a concerted way and in a way that doesn’t penalize children for the shortcoming of their parents. If a child is on the road and you pick up that child, then what is the responsibility of the parent in all that and you are detaining the child. So we have concerns as to how we can meet the objective of keeping children safe and engaged in a way that does not penalize them for the shortcomings, in a way that respects their rights, in a way that supports their families.”
Several minors have since been picked up by police: some heading to the shop to buy food, on errands, playing with friends, others were traveling home after a school activity and of course those who were up to no good. For seventeen-year-old Ever Colindres, he works to help his family and is now fearful because he was detained over the weekend and treated like a criminal.
Ever Colindres, Minor Detained by Police
“Police stopped me and took me to the station for no reason. I was just going to buy at Lee Chee a fry chicken with my friend and they say that I was running away from them and I wasn’t. They act like dehn ketch criminal too…like dehn ketch El Chapo or something cause it was siren and everything like dah big thing di go on, but nothing. I came out from work nine o’clock, I went home; there was nothing to eat so I went to bathe and get ready and went to buy a fry chicken and that was about it.”
Joana Colindres, Guardian
“We came in and we saw many kids there; there were only three seventeen year olds there, everybody else was of age thirteen fourteen twelve, etc. I heard the parents mention that the kids were just going across to the grandparents.”
ACP Williams says that it is a drastic measure that some may not agree with, but it has become necessary to address the broader issue of engaging parenting. That differs depending on various social factors.
“I understand what they are trying to do, but at the end of the day, who gets penalized for other people’s action. I signed for him right. So they saying if they catch him another night on the streets, I will be the one that will be responsible for him. They’ll either charge me two thousand dollars—now I don’t know where I’ll get that money from—I don’t have that money to pay for someone. Or take me to jail for a year.”
Darwin Westby, Resident
“I would not say I fully support it, but it is something that we look at for security reasons to ensure that children are safe and to prevent them from engaging in crime.”
Kezia Arnold, Resident
“When I was a minor, by six o’clock I deh ina mi house. When street light come on, dah time fi yo deh ina yo house. I believe no parent should have any thirteen, fourteen year old out on the street around that time.”
But on March eighteenth, 2016, the Old Capital was officially named a child friendly municipality. It’s a community where children are free—ensuring that all minors, irrespective of their social, economic or ethnic background have equal rights and access to health, education, shelter, social protection and social care. A community where children have access to public space to recreate and one that is free of violence and abuse. So the idea of a curfew, according to Mayor Darrell Bradley, goes against this reality.
Darrell Bradley, Belize City Mayor [File: April 1st, 2016]
“The idea of a curfew and we have to be very careful in relation to the language that we use, we don’t support that. So that when you engage with young people and you are talking with trying to do strategies in relation to preventing crime, I think the police is on the right track in a lot of their community policing initiative; their engagement with various stakeholders. And I think that when you go curfew, that creates a negative image, because first and foremost every effort that you are doing in the city is undermined because you are saying that the city is unsafe.”
Different youth service agencies, including the Truancy Unit of the Ministry of Education and RESTORE Belize UNICEF and the Ministry of Human Development, have since met with the Police to ensure that the curfew is in compliance with the requirements of the Families and Children Act. But back to the objective of reducing crime committed by minors; will a curfew have an impact?
“It was tried three times during that period and I think a good lesson is that the department of human services, community rehabilitation department and the police need to work together. That is the strongest lesson; this is a very complicated issue and we need to work together. What does not work is penalizing children is penalizing children for a problem that is really coming out of the adults.”
“Let’s suppose I am a nine year old and my mom tells me to go to the store and get something I am going to be detained and taken because my mother sent me to get something from a grocery store. I’m sorry, detained. For how many hours? Six, four, three…it depends; for doing nothing. You see the psychological impact on the child? Why am I being detained? They don’t even understand what’s going on, and they are detained. And then the parents…I’m sure if the parent comes and pick them up, they are going to corporal punish them. I told you…etc and then they are going to start calling names. It’s a whole issue of violence. Again, they are victims and they are re-victimized again.”
Duane Moody for News Five.