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Officer Ray Hernandez

Tracking truants on Richmond’s streets

on October 20, 2010

Six De Anza High students left school, broke into two houses, and stole a gun last Monday, October 11. At around two in the afternoon, police sped to a house near Robert Way and Santa Rita Road, where they had been tipped off to a burglary in progress. Police arrived at the scene and arrested two teenagers fleeing the home; four others got away.

The next day Officer Terrance Jackson, De Anza High School’s resource officer, quietly pulled four students out of class and arrested them in connection with the two burglaries from the previous day. Police recovered nearly all the stolen property, including a handgun taken from one of the homes.

Police point to cases like this as a primary reason for the city’s new daytime curfew ordinance. The proposal drew some opposition before the city council unanimously passed it last spring. Police started enforcing the curfew last Wednesday.

The purpose of the initiative is to get students in school and off the streets—where they could be victims of crime or might commit a crime, said Officer Ray Hernandez, another school resource officer for Lovonya DeJean Middle School.

Officer Hernandez calls this young man's mother to see if his story checks out. He was stopped while walking two dogs down Costa Avenue.

Every day, an estimated 450 Richmond minors skip school. This past spring, police conducted truancy sweeps across the city and rounded up 425 juveniles over a three-day period. “Not every kid that’s not in school is out committing crimes, some are just playing X-Box at home,” said Lt. Mark Gagan, spokesman for the police department. “But the ones who are standing on the corners are more likely to be victimized.”

Lt. Gagan admits that in the past—sweeps aside—police hadn’t pushed hard enough to pick up truants. “We are a West County Unified School District that has a ten percent truancy rate continually,” he said. “And so obviously the approach to dealing with truancy has not been effective.”

Last March, Police Chief Chris Magnus proposed a detailed plan for a daytime curfew to the city’s Public Safety Committee. He suggested the city adopt an ordinance that makes it unlawful for unaccompanied minors to be in public places during school hours. In April, the city council unanimously approved the ordinance.

Richmond was the last city in western Contra Costa County to adopt a daytime curfew for minors. The other cities have reported success in bringing down truancy rates.

Jeff Ritterman, Vice Mayor and a supporter of the curfew, said the ordinance is just one part of the solution. “It’s not by itself going to solve the problem,” he said. “It will help us bring truancy down, and hopefully it will help us connect youths who are not going to school with people who can help them.”

Because of time spent on training, school outreach, and the untimely illness of the lieutenant overseeing the program, the curfew started behind schedule. At a Richmond Police Commission meeting earlier this month, Chief Magnus said the daytime curfew was getting off to a rough start and that it, “won’t be until the middle of the school year until the program is in full swing.”

Currently, the department’s five school resource officers—who are assigned to the city’s high schools and middle school—are the only ones enforcing the ordinance. In the coming weeks, patrol officers will be trained in the new procedure for handling truants, and they will begin enforcing the daytime curfew as well.

On weekends and weekdays after school, Nicholl Park Skate Plaza is often bustling with teenagers. During school hours, Officer Hernandez will often ride past to make sure no minors are hanging out.

Last Thursday, Officer Ray Hernandez explained his strategy for finding truants as he rolled down MacDonald Avenue. “They always go back to the same places,” he said, bending forward and peering down an empty side street.

Sometimes he finds students hiding behind the bleachers at Nicholl Park; other times they turn up at the McDonald’s on 23rd Street. “They got to eat,” he said. “And everyone likes Mickey D’s.”

That Thursday he found several young men out on the streets. First, he spotted Deon walking on to South 37th Street.

Officer Hernandez parked his car and threw open the door. “How you doing sir?” he asked the young man. “I’m sorry, partner, how old are you?”

Deon looked up and said he was 17. He claimed he didn’t have class first period and was on his way to John F. Kennedy High. Officer Hernandez got Deon’s father on the phone and after confirming the story let Deon go on his way. Officer Hernandez said as long as the kids are honest and their stories check out with their parents, then there’s no problem.

With the next young man there was a problem. Officer Hernandez found him walking in the North and East neighborhood. He called the young man over to the squad car and soon caught him tripped up in a lie about which high school he attended.

Officer Hernandez patted the student down and checked his bag for contraband. He turned the student around and said, “It always gets worse when you lie. Always.”

“Ok. Can I be honest with you?” the young man asked.

“I would hope so.”

The young man looked straight at Officer Hernandez and winced. “I was at school, right? Then my stomach hurted, right? So I just wanted to go home to do number two, because you know how Richmond High has dirty bathrooms? And then I told my mom. I called her and she said ‘Ok. Walk home, just be careful.'”

Officer Hernandez heads east on Ohio Avenue after checking for truants around the 33rd Street overpass.

Officer Hernandez didn’t buy it. He reached for his two-way radio and called dispatch. “SR-5, I’ll be transporting one to PAL.”

He put down the radio and turned back to the young man. “Well, we have clean bathrooms at PAL,” he said. “If you had just been honest with me up front, I could have called your mom and tried to confirm that. But now, because you lied to me, it’s going to be hard to believe you.”

Like most truants who are now picked up by police, this young man was brought to the Police Activities League on MacDonald Avenue and 22nd Street, one of two youth centers playing an important role in the daytime curfew.

In the past, if officers did pick up truants, they would take them back to school or to the police station. Now, they are brought to PAL, where counselors try to address the underlying reasons the kids are cutting class in the first place.

William McCoy, a case manager at PAL, said it’s about finding out, “what the problem is, and see if PAL can offer you any type of resources that will help you stay in school either through tutoring, mentoring, or just support.”

As Officer Hernandez escorted the young man inside, McCoy was explaining how the curfew works to another truant named Franky and his mother, Alicia, who had had to leave work to pick up her son.

It’s a non-criminal infraction, McCoy told her. “The fine goes up to $500. That’s between you and the judge,” he added as the mother pursed her lips and shook her head. McCoy handed her the infraction ticket and explained that all daytime curfew citations have to be cleared on the last Friday of the month with Juvenile Traffic Court Judge Nancy Stark at the 37th Street Courthouse. “Make sure you know that date,” he said. “This truancy thing is not a joke.”

McCoy has dealt with a lot of anxious parents over the last few days. He can’t tell them what to expect at court, because no one—other than Judge  Stark—knows how the penalties will be determined.

Both the police department and Vice Mayor Ritterman insist that it’s very unlikely that fines of $500 would be issued. “We didn’t want an ordinance that would be motivated by punishment,” said Ritterman.

As Franky and his mother got up to leave, McCoy reminded them about the recreation center’s resources, such as its boxing program. “We’re more about activities and workshops for young men like your son,” he said. “If he’s ready, he’s welcome.”

From there, it’s the parent’s decision whether to take the truant child back to school that day, or home.

On the first day of enforcement, police brought eight truants to PAL. Another six were escorted to the center the next day. Once the program is fully in place and beat officers are also picking up truants, police expect to bring in 15 to 20 minors a day.

PAL is the main drop-off center for truants. The RYSE Center will be a primary referral center for minors with mental health issues or serious anger-management problems.

Thomas is the Media Arts Coordinator and a mentor at RYSE. He graduated from the Los Angeles Recording School and used to be a product specialist with Digidesign, the creator of ProTools.

Fred Thomas, a mentor at RYSE, explained that while the center didn’t push for the ordinance it could be an opportunity to reach more kids. “We might find ourselves interfacing with youth we might not otherwise interface with and have conversations with kids about what they’re experiencing.”

When the daytime curfew was first announced in the spring, opponents blasted it as a measure that would criminalize youth. But Lt. Gagan said it gives police another level of intervention for the kids who are chronic truants and those they believe are involved in criminal activity.

Jim Hausken, of the American Civil Liberties Union for Northern California, said he realizes the daytime curfew is not technically criminalizing youth. But he cautioned, “It’s setting up a situation where young people are being trained to relate in a certain way to society as though they were criminals.”

Hausken added that the ordinance allows authorities to establish a record for the minor. “Pretty soon somebody is using that record for anything from a gang injunction, to refusing housing or scholarships and all sorts of stuff,” he said.

Police officers will still have a wide range of discretion in how they enforce the curfew, said Lt. Gagan. “If a kid is walking one block from school an hour late, we’re not going to take him to an Attendance Center,” he said. But Gagan insists on remembering the burglary from last week. “In that case these kids now had a gun,” he said. “Truancy was a major part of this crime occurring. They were burglarizing homes, not in class.”

Back at PAL, officer Hernandez thanked the case managers and left to have lunch at DeJean Middle School, where he’s been assigned for more than a year. Not twenty minutes after he arrived, a school official called him to the boys’ locker room. Minutes later, Officer Hernandez rushed past with a black bag in hand and disappeared into the principal’s office.

Officer Hernandez had just confiscated several bullets found in an empty locker. After a thorough sweep, no firearm was found.

The incident put an end to Officer Hernandez’s search for truants and troublemakers on the streets that day. For now, the problem was actually on school grounds.

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