Closed for murder: NJ city tries to stem crime by imposing business curfew

Violence-ridden Paterson forces stores to close by midnight or pay a $2,000 fine – and business owners aren’t happy

Jenny Calderon, center right, at a viewing service for her daughter, Genesis Rincon, 12, who was hit by a stray bullet in Paterson, New Jersey, in July 2014. The city has approved a business curfew in hopes of cutting violence without having to significantly expand policing.
Julio Cortez / AP

PATERSON, N.J. — In 1791, Alexander Hamilton and a consortium of well-heeled entrepreneurs dreamed up a plan to build a modern industrial city at the Great Falls on the Passaic River, in northern New Jersey. Through the 19th century, Paterson, America’s first planned city, became an exemplar of the successful industrial metropolis, home to hundreds of textile plants. But in an all-too-familiar story, Silk City, as it came to be known, had a spectacular fall from grace in the second half of the 20th century. The textile plants and the riches they generated are now history. Racked by high poverty, a skyrocketing foreclosure rate and ongoing violence, it feels like a city on the edge.

The past year has been a particularly grisly one for the city of 146,000, which is just 13 miles from Manhattan. On the evening of July 4, 12-year-old Genesis Rincon was struck and killed by a stray bullet while riding a scooter in the city’s 4th Ward. The incident prompted approximately 300 Patersonians to march on city hall. On Sept. 15, a 27-year-old man, Antoine Garris, was shot and killed while intervening in an argument at Moya Bar-Liquors, on 10th Ave. Five days later, several men in Paterson’s 1st Ward opened fire on a crowd of teenagers, killing 15-year-old Nazerah Bugg and wounding another girl. By the end of that week, the city’s death toll in 2014 had already exceeded that for all of 2013.

Paterson’s police force, which was cut by a third in 2011 due to budgetary shortfall, is unable to contain so much violence. “I will tell you that we are undermanned,” said Police Director Jerry Speziale, a decorated officer who was once shot in the line of duty, over the din of recruits exercising in a gymnasium at the Essex County Policy Academy. “We have to think outside of the box.”

And so, this past summer, amid the near-weekly reports of fatal violent incidents, Paterson’s City Council approved an unusual policy that it hopes will dramatically cut violence without the city’s having to significantly expand policing: a curfew — not for people, but for businesses.

Under the ordinance, which was implemented just days before Bugg’s death, 420 businesses in 15 designated hot spots around the city must be shuttered by midnight or else face a fine of up to $2,000. This isn’t the first business curfew in the U.S. — Camden and Jersey City have limited curfews for businesses in certain areas — but Paterson’s ordinance, which targets areas throughout the city and only exempts drive-through establishments, is more extensive. Outside of New Jersey, business curfews are a rare policy nowadays.

‘Criminals don’t have operating hours, so what’s the point?’

grocery store owner in Paterson, N.J.

Forensic markings are seen on the ground as a child runs by a cleaned up crime scene, Friday, June 28, 2013, in Paterson, New Jersey. Authorities are looking for the person who shot and killed a suburban teenager, just hours after his high school graduation, during a trip to a high-crime neighborhood in Paterson.
Julio Cortez / AP

In theory, the curfew will cut crime by emptying Paterson’s streets, creating, as Speziale put it, “a situation where people don’t have havens to hide.” With businesses closed, he said, “there’s not a logical reason for somebody to be hanging out there,” so it is easier for police to identify “people who don’t belong.”

Some residents and business owners have welcomed the ordinance. “The way things have been going in Paterson over the past 15 years, I think it’s a good idea,” said Peter Acharya, who owns Florida Drugs & Liquor, a pharmacy on Broadway, a block away from a gas station where a shooting last year ended in the deaths of two salesclerks.

But others are displeased. One of the curfew hot spots, which were designated based on crime statistics from the past two years, is Straight Street, a busy thoroughfare with several bars, liquor stores, restaurants and an elementary school. It has seen a number of violent incidents, including the murder of an off-duty police officer in 2011. On a recent sunny Friday afternoon, two friends, Angel and Jose, said they feel less safe on Straight Street since the ordinance took effect. (Both declined to give their full names). The men were relaxing on bar stools between games of pool at Mo’s Bar & Liquors, located at the busy intersection of Straight Street and Park Avenue, another troubled street.

A block full of people, they said, is less menacing than a deserted one. “It’s messing up everything,” said Angel. Jose said: “The streets are empty, so it’s more dangerous.” On Nov. 23, one week after the pair met at Mo’s to blow off steam and talk about the curfew, a 19-year-old man was shot and killed at 3:40 a.m in the nearby 4th Ward, on another hot-spot street.

Nor does the curfew address crime at other times of day, they said. “A couple of days ago I saw someone get robbed and knocked out in broad daylight, at this very intersection,” said Jose. Outside on the sidewalk, a couple of sullen-looking men smoked cigarettes as children carrying backpacks walked and skipped past on their way home from the nearby elementary school. The next day, on Nov. 15, a man was shot in an attempted murder at 4:30 pm, two blocks from Mo’s.

Residents across the town echoed Jose’s sentiment. “Criminals don’t have operating hours, so what’s the point?” said the owner of a grocery store located a few blocks from Moya Bar. Both Bugg and Rincon were killed outside the curfew hours.

But Speziale believes that the ordinance has already proved itself to be effective — and he is hoping to expand it to other parts of the city. “This street, because there’s a curfew at 1 a.m., is now empty at 1:30,” he said. “Whereas prior to the curfew, there were numerous calls for service.” But he said it was “way too early” to look at statistics.

Falling revenues

Dino Elbeida of U.S. Chicken says he has lost 18 hours of work per week because of the curfew.
Arthur Holland Michel

Business owners and residents in Paterson, meanwhile, said that the curfew has disrupted the city’s legal late-night economy. In 2011, U.S. Chicken, a restaurant three blocks up from Mo’s, was the scene of a brutal late-night machete attack that left two men injured. But Taha Alsaidi, the owner, is now worried that his business won’t be able to survive on reduced hours. The curfew, he said, was costing him $8,000 a month. Dino Elbeida, one of Alsaidi’s employees, said that since the curfew began, he has lost 18 hours of work per week, which equates to almost half his total salary. “Nobody is happy,” he said, leaning on the counter behind bulletproof glass. His boss worries that the business won’t survive the winter. “I have no idea what I am going to do,” said Alsaidi.

According to the city’s mayor, Jose "Joey” Torres, the main targets of the ordinance are Paterson’s many liquor stores. “Alcohol consumption, alcohol sale and distribution within the late hours are definitely one of the components that creates a public nuisance,” Torres told the Paterson Times in August after vetoing an earlier version of the ordinance, based on New Jersey’s other business curfews, that exempted liquor stores. A majority of late-night violent incidents, he said at the time, have involved liquor stores. (Torres declined to answer questions on the curfew for this article.)

These establishments are now suffering more than any other businesses, owners said. Quilvio Montesino, a voluble man who owns several late-night establishments in the curfew zones, said he has already laid-off 21 employees because of the ordinance. “Before the curfew, I paid on average about $3,600 in taxes every month,” he said over the phone. “Today I made my latest monthly payment. It was $822.” Five liquor stores across the city are slated to close by Jan. 1, according to Montesino.

Shortly after the ordinance was implemented, Montesino and nine other liquor store owners filed an appeal, arguing that the policy is “arbitrary and capricious” and “improvident.” The appellants allege that the curfew will cause up to $400,000 in economic loss each week, an estimate the city disputes. Whatever the actual economic loss, business owners and their employees wonder why they have to bear any of the financial burdens of the policy. “If a crime happens outside of a store, the business owner is already the victim,” said Montesino.

The city rejected the appeal, and the case has now been passed to the Passaic County Superior Court. 

Out of options

In November, “Jersey Silkmills,” a colorful 1917 canvas by modernist painter Oscar Bluemner depicting an image of Paterson’s halcyon days — a cluster of redbrick silk mills at full steam — sold at auction for $3.7 million. The painting portrays a city charged with optimism. But the reality today may be that the city has run out of options.

Julio Tavarez, the only member of the city council who voted against the curfew, said in a public hearing on the ordinance, “How is it that this is going to save lives?” Critics like Montesino contend that discussions of the curfew’s effectiveness are beside the point. If the curfew causes a sustained spike in unemployment, it will translate into additional pressure on the city’s budget and a deepening of Paterson’s problems. “There will be a domino effect,” he said.

But for other members of Paterson’s government, inaction is unthinkable. Said Speziale, “You just can’t throw up your hands in the air and say ‘defeat.’ ”

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