After a string of shootings in Greektown, the Detroit Police Department announced in April that it would increase curfew enforcement for people under 18. Let’s rewind to a moment 40 years ago, when Detroit Mayor Coleman Young tried the same thing.

Concerned about several highly publicized violent crime incidents that hit the news in summer 1983, Young announced that DPD would heavily enforce a curfew ordinance for minors starting that July. 

“I want to make one thing very clear to everyone. If you mess up, we will nail you,” Young said. 

Young said the youth curfew was a result of a 5.6% uptick in Detroit’s crime rate from January to May 1983. But in truth, reported crime had dropped by 15% that June compared to the summer before, according to a Detroit Free Press report at the time. Looking back, violent crime statistics from 1978 to 1987 indicate there was no significant increase in juvenile crime in 1983. 

The curfew attracted a mix of support and outrage. The Detroit Free Press published a reader opinion survey the day the curfew was initiated. Of the 700 respondents, 68% supported the curfew. The ordinance drew concerns from the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), which called the curfew unconstitutional and said it “created an unfortunate national image of Detroit that greatly exaggerates this city’s crime problem.” The ACLU unsuccessfully challenged the curfew in court. 

Detroit historian Jamon Jordan has traced Detroit’s curfews back 150 years before Young’s attempt, to 1833. City officials then enacted an ordinance to restrict all Black people from walking the streets after 9 p.m. The curfew was a response to uprisings that emerged to protect Thornton Blackburn, a self-emancipated formerly enslaved man whom slave catchers were attempting to return to slavery, Jordan found.

Sheriffs, deputies and a 16-man patrol enforced the ordinances and quelled emerging protests. Throughout the years, city officials continued to enact curfews in response to activist movements. Following the 1943 “race riots,” Mayor Edward Jeffries and Gov. Harry Kelly enacted curfews which were almost exclusively enforced on Black residents — and again in Detroit and surrounding suburbs after the 1967 uprising, Jordan reported. 

The impacts of curfews on crime are questionable. A 2016 study by the Campbell Collaboration, a nonprofit criminal justice research group, found that juvenile curfews were ineffective at curbing crime.

Alex (she/her) is an urban studies and public history student at Wayne State University and a Detroit Documenter. She has a special interest in researching Metro-Detroit history and seeks to connect current issues with historical context to find solutions. She believes we must understand our past to...