Everyone's Imposing Curfews. But Do They Work?

A protest on May 30 against police brutality. (Chava Sanchez/LAist)

Cities and counties across Southern California are under curfews spurred by massive protests over the killing of George Floyd at the hands of Minneapolis police officers. But a number of experts who study policing say there's not a lot of evidence that curfews actually reduce unrest.

One of the reasons for the uncertainty is that, historically, we've had very few curfews.

"It's actually an extremely aggressive strategy that you don't often see in democratic nations," said Jennifer Earl, a University of Arizona expert on how police handle protests.

In L.A. County, a 6 p.m. to 6 a.m. curfew has been in place every day since Sunday.

Riverside, San Bernardino and Orange counties have all utilized curfews, as have various cities in L.A. County, including Beverly Hills and Santa Monica.

Curfews bring a danger of police misconduct, Earl said. "The same kind of inequalities that we see in the use of discretion, generally, are likely to be seen in moments where police have greatly amplified discretion," she said.

Videos shot by journalists and demonstrators have shown a massive law enforcement presence after curfew hours in protest areas, with officers corralling and arresting people who remained in the street and loading them onto buses.

Other accounts show police enforcing the curfew outside of protest zones.

KPCC/LAist reporter Emily Guerin reported from protests in Santa Monica on Sunday night about police officers shooting rubber bullets at people driving in cars and pointing their guns at people on the sidewalk at 10th and Bay, in a residential neighborhood about a mile from the downtown demonstrations.

"We can only protect people and their First Amendment rights for so long, because we're draining resources from other things," said Craig Lally, president of the Los Angeles Police Protective League, the union that represents rank-and-file LAPD officers.

Curfews are used so sparingly because they represent a dangerous situation for everyone at a protest scene, he said.

"It's a way to coax the good people, to [tell them], 'Okay, you made your point,'" Lally said. "We've protected [you] as long as we can [and] we may not be able to protect you any longer."

'ESCALATE...UNTIL YOU GAIN COMPLIANCE'

Earl said the police tactics used today draw heavily from violent confrontations with protestors in the 1960s and '70s.

"A very standard way of thinking that's developed through police training and practice is that, if you're not getting compliance, you escalate your level of force until you gain compliance," she said.

"Police really think that they are misunderstood by the public, and that the public just doesn't understand the constraints [on law enforcement]," Earl said.

By Tuesday, the LAPD had arrested 2,500 people since the start of the protests for failure to disperse or breaking curfew. In Santa Monica, police said they'd arrested more than 400 people for crimes such as burglary and curfew violations.

Earl says enacting a curfew can also signal tension inside law enforcement agencies.

"There is a preference for techniques like tear gas, rubber bullets [and] curfews when police supervisors are not sure that they can control their line officers," she said. "If you can't control your officers, what you need to do is keep them away from the people."

Journalists from KPCC's newsroom who covered the protests over the weekend reported they were met with aggression, and some were injured alongside protesters. Reporter Adolfo Guzman-Lopez was shot in the throat with a rubber bullet by a Long Beach police officer on Sunday.

ECHOES OF '92: 'IT MAKES YOU SUPER, HYPER ALERT.'

The ramifications of a curfew are serious for neighborhoods that still live in fear of law enforcement — and hearken back to the unrest in 1992 that upended many lives.

April, a resident of the Crenshaw District who asked us not to use her last name, said she made sure to walk her dog before the curfew started on Sunday night. She talked with a neighbor who reminded her repeatedly about the curfew.

"How could I forget?" April said.

She was 11 years old in 1992. "I certainly thought I was going to be shot if I stepped outside," she said, describing the National Guard patrol in Leimert Park, where she grew up.

So, far from Sunday's protests, she stayed inside — and she says her neighborhood was really quiet. "It makes you super, hyper-alert," she said of the curfew order.

A curfew puts a target on communities of color that are already heavily policed, said Rashawn Ray of the Brookings Institution.

"What people want is not a curfew," he said. "People want the police to stop treating them badly. And a curfew might actually then enhance the likelihood of mistreatment, not reduce it."

Ray said a curfew layered over the current COVID-19 health restrictions is a double-edged sword for low-income communities of color, which are feeling the brunt of the pandemic.

People who work in "essential" jobs, who not only have to deal with the challenges of staying healthy, might also end up having "issues with the police" during a curfew, he said.

"Guess what?," Ray asked. "Another one of your freedoms just got restricted during the biggest global pandemic we've had in a century."

'I DIDN'T UNDERSTAND'

As curfew orders blare on cell phones across the region, anxiety also permeates immigrant communities, said local immigration attorney Alma Rosa Nieto.

Nieto says many immigrants have jobs that require them to work at night or odd hours, she said, adding that her clients are fearful.

She said they are telling her: "'I don't know what I'm going to do. I can't stop working. I have to support my family, but I'm scared of fearing arrest or citation.'"

L.A. County has only sent its curfew orders through phone emergency alerts in English. Nieto said she received inquiries on social media asking her to explain what was going on.

"I heard of a few clients saying, 'I didn't understand, I knew it was an alert because [the phone] was bleeping, but I didn't know what it meant.' And so grandkids and kids have been translating."

'YOU CAN'T GO IN THERE AND PICK PEOPLE OUT. YOU'VE GOT TO MOVE EVERYBODY.'

Lally of the Police Protective League said he doesn't expect curfews to become a regular part of law enforcement tactics. "We only do it when it's absolutely necessary," he said.

"There's people that are infiltrating these crowds and throwing rocks and bottles and Molotov cocktails at the cops," Lally said. "So how do you control it? You can't go in there and pick people out. You've got to move everybody."

But that approach can lead to more confrontation spurred by police, Earl argued.

"Very few American police officers are taught to approach their job by asking, 'If I didn't have the ability to use force, how would I handle this situation first?'" she said.

On Tuesday, KPCC reporter Emily Guerin reported police helicopters circling her neighborhood in Santa Monica, calling out Curfew! through a bullhorn just after 2 p.m.

Tweeted one Santa Monica resident:"Outrageous. Let's see how long this goes on for."