Less than 30 minutes before their 10 p.m. curfew, four teenage boys chased each other in downtown Minneapolis, hopping through construction tunnels and over guardrails. They stopped outside a convenience store and loitered with a group of older teens to pass the time.

After about 10 minutes, an employee came outside and told the group to move along.

“We stay out until 2 a.m. all the time on the weekend and the police don’t bother us,” said one of the boys, Jojo, 13, “and if we do see them, we run.”

Like many big cities, Minneapolis and St. Paul have laws that require anyone under the age of 18 to be off the streets by a certain hour. Officials say the laws are designed to protect young people from harm, but they are also used to prevent juvenile crime.

St. Paul police, for example, have stepped up enforcement of that city’s curfew laws in response to gang activity last summer that resulted in the death of one teenager and the near fatal beating of an East Side resident, Ray Widstrand.

But enforcement of those laws can vary widely from one city or one neighborhood to the next. The American Civil Liberties Union and other groups note that black youth are more likely to be picked up for violating curfew than white ones.

Status crimes, like curfews, are “a way for the police, we believe, to get fingerprints and mug shots of minority kids. … And we think that’s tremendously inappropriate,” said Chuck Samuelson, executive director of the Minnesota ACLU.

However, officials said juveniles who violate curfew in Hennepin County are not fingerprinted, photographed or criminalized in any way. The laws are a two-way street, aimed at also protecting young people from “nasty stuff” that takes place late at night, said County Attorney Mike Freeman.

“We’re not only protecting society from what the kid might do, we’re protecting the kid from what society might do to [them],” he said.

In St. Paul and Minneapolis, kids who get caught most often do community service, pay a fine or enter programs to help keep them off the streets.

In Minneapolis, violators are usually taken to the Juvenile Supervision Center, located downtown in City Hall. Workers offer counseling, recreation and social programs and alert the parents to come get them.

Racial disparity

Data requested by the Star Tribune from the center show that about three-fourths of the youths cited for curfew violations so far this year are black.

The Third Precinct in south Minneapolis reported the highest number of curfew violations, averaging five a week, followed by downtown, the North Side, northeast, then southwest, with about one per week, according to data through the first six months of 2014. About 70 percent of those picked up are black, about 6 percent white, the data showed.

In the summer, the number of kids picked up for violating curfew jumps from an average of 13 a week to about 40.

Freeman said officers pick up kids when they have time and enforcement varies by precinct. So, while more curfew violators are picked up in south Minneapolis, it’s not necessarily because there are more of them out late, he said. It’s because those officers are more vigilant about enforcing curfew.

Another factor is the number of officers available. With the Minneapolis Police Department at its lowest staffing level in at least 10 years, officers go where they are most needed — areas of higher crime, Freeman said.

“The more cop cars there are around, the more likely the kids will be caught hanging on the street corner,” he said.

Police Cmdr. Bruce Folkens agreed that curfew enforcement fluctuates based on workload but emphasized that statistics provided by the supervision center fail to account for all of the juveniles picked up after dark.

If they’re found close to home, then police will often drop them there instead of taking them all the way downtown. Sometimes they aren’t even cited, he said.

For those who are, officers likely noticed that they looked underage and stopped to see why they were out, he said.

“They pick up the kids who are out there,” he said. “They’re not going out looking for a certain race of kid.”

New effort in St. Paul

St. Paul is developing a new juvenile drop-off center, called Connections Center, to combat crime on the city’s East Side. It’s part of the Safe Summer Initiative, a curfew enforcement program in which youthful violators are picked up and connected to case management services to steer them from trouble.

The program, which connects young people with ambassadors, is for boys ages 12 to 17 to get together to talk about issues with family and school, while encouraging good behavior.

The program is run by veteran youth worker Steve Randall, who’s helped young men escape gang life and find jobs for more than 30 years in St. Paul.

He respects the police’s difficult job, he said, but doesn’t know what to tell the young minority men he counsels when they’re often wrongfully accused of bad behavior by authorities.

“If there’s more than two or three of them, then they’re deemed a gang or a threat,” said Randall.

St. Paul police were unable to provide data about the number of curfew violations in the city.

Nowhere to go

Some of the young people out after hours don’t have a place to call home. Some don’t feel safe with their parent or guardian and others have been kicked out of the family household.

Minneapolis youth worker Sarah Klouda said some will tell their friends that they’re heading downtown, when they’re actually headed for a shelter.

This aimless roaming looks suspicious to authorities but is the result of avoiding having to stay at a shelter or trying to find a place that will take them in.

“I don’t think, for the most part, they’re wanting to be wandering around for no real reason,” said Klouda, a case manager at Teens Alone.

Another reason youth get cited is simply because they — or their parents — don’t know what their curfew is, or that the city even has one, said Shane Zahn of the Downtown Improvement District.

Curfew times differ by age groups and vary based on whether it’s a weekday or a weekend.

“Ask anybody what the curfew is for downtown or Minneapolis and if they can rattle it off verbatim, I’d be surprised,” said Zahn, director of safe initiatives for the DID.

While no real statistical evidence exists to prove the curfew laws have reduced juvenile crime, Freeman still considers the law successful because it creates an opportunity to intervene in the lives of teenagers before they go astray.

Data from the juvenile center show that more than 80 percent of the kids who are dropped off for violating curfew never receive another citation.

“Kids need to be scared one time; they don’t do it again,” Freeman said.