The Dallas Morning News
Leaders’ debate over teen curfew nothing new
City first adopted such a law in 1897, and it was the first in Texas
The Fort Worth City Council has been debating whether to continue a curfew for the city’s youth ages 17 and younger prohibiting them from being “in public places” between 11 p.m. and 6 a.m. Sunday through Thursday and from midnight to 6:00 a.m. Friday and Saturday.
The teen curfew has been on the books for years and comes up for renewal periodically, the last time in 2016. The police department generally defends it, saying something like, “The kids know they have to be home at a certain time.” The debate was reopened in January, with officials still in disagreement on whether it works, though the curfew ordinance will be allowed to expire, for now.
It’s not the first time the city has wrestled with the problem. In stricter parenting times (1897) the council approved a “vigorous curfew ordinance” aimed at children. Fort Worth was the first city in Texas to adopt such a law, the work of alderman Fred S. Boulware, who would go on to become “the father of the Texas curfew law.”
Boulware’s ordinance covered anyone under the age of 16 who was on the street for any reason after a given time, which varied by season. The legal language covered a long column of newsprint, and the newspaper called it “the most important item taken up by the council” at the time. Though gender neutral, it was clearly aimed at boys who were part of the growing criminal element. Violators could be fined up to $25, presumably to be paid by their parents.
Model for other cities
Fort Worth held itself up as a model for other cities across the country that adopted similar curfews. And it seemed to work at first. A month after it took effect, police had not made a single arrest.
Then came 14-year-old Henry Estes. Brought to the station house by an officer, he was interrogated by Chief William Rea, who accepted the boy’s story that he was taking a homemade lunch to his brother, employed at Fort Worth Light & Power. After lecturing Henry on “the evils of loitering about the streets at night,” Rea sent him home. No word whether the lunch was ever delivered.
Responsibility for enforcing the ordinance fell upon the city court (aka police court), presided over in 1897 by Judge J.H. Jackson. When three boys ages 11 and 12 were brought before him, he lamented, “I have never pronounced a sentence I am so averse to” before fining each of them $1, which he explained meant “six days each on the rocks” if their parents did not come forward to pay the fines.
Not every parent was in favor of the curfew. Many were openly opposed for a variety of reasons. As an alderman in another city explained when debating the issue, “If it is passed, the sons of some of the most prominent people in this city will be the first arrested,” and no official wanted that. Another alderman said he doubted “whether the law would even be constitutional in Texas.” Sure enough, it did not take long before one of the curfew laws came up before the state appeals court, which struck it down. This should have been all it took for other towns to back off, but most sat tight, waiting for the court to single their own laws out.
Falling out of favor
Rea remained a committed supporter. In 1900, he said it had “lessened crime among the youth of our city to a great extent,” offering no numbers to back up his claim. Five years later, after the Fort Worth ordinance had been struck down on narrow grounds, he went on record favoring a new law “which could not be thrown out by the courts.”
After 1904, curfews fell out of favor for both legal and social reasons. To many Texans, they seemed an unwarranted exercise of government power. When Waco implemented a tough curfew in 1912, the Fort Worth Star-telegram sneered, “Come on, Waco! Be fair to the kids.”
There things rested until 1994, when Fort Worth Police Chief Thomas Windham persuaded the City Council to resurrect the idea, dubbing it a “teen curfew” and focused on “protecting teens from becoming crime victims.”
Windham died in 2000, but the curfew lived on.