Amid a mixed reaction to Mayor Brandon Scott’s newly established youth curfew, some Baltimore residents are frustrated not just with the curfew, but with the city’s constant promotion of it.
Robocalls and texts have been sent out to city residents on the days when the curfew is in effect regardless of whether or not they have children. In some cases, the recipients live outside the city – and even out of state.
“Reminder,” the texts read. “Youth curfew ordinance is in effect from 11 pm to 6 am. For events and opportunities for young people, go to www.bmorechildren.com/bmoresummer.”
“I don’t know where they get the phone numbers, but clearly not from a list of parents with underage kids,” said Alix Tobey Southwick, a longtime Baltimore resident with no kids of her own, who has received several texts from the city.
The texts are usually followed by calls that her phone marks as “Scam Likely,” which Tobey Southwick doesn’t pick up.
Through conversations with friends, she determined that the calls are another avenue through which the city tries to contact her.
“This is an emergency message,” the robotic-sounding phone calls begin, followed by the soothing voice of Deputy Mayor Letitia Dzirasa starting off with, “Hey Baltimore! Curfew engagement is in effect from 11 p.m. to 6 a.m . . . ”
“It’s not something I’m, like, raising my fist and calling my councilperson and, you know, being upset about,” Tobey Southwick said.
“But it’s also annoying to have my phone alert me and stop what I’m doing and have to look at it, and then it’s like, ‘Hmm, yeah, doesn’t apply.’”
520,385 calls, texts and messages
With recipients wondering why they are being contacted and how the city obtains their phone numbers – voter registration lists? tax or water billing records? – The Brew reached out to city officials.
Jack French, a spokesman for the Mayor’s Office of Neighborhood Safety and Engagement (MONSE), provided some answers.
The texts and robocalls went out via the city’s Emergency Notification system (BMORE ALERT), which is managed by the Office of Emergency Management, the same system available to alert residents to severe weather, chemical releases or other urgent matters.
Approximately 520,385 landline, cellphone, text and VOIP messages were sent out citywide, he said.
And how does the Emergency Notification system obtain its phone list?
French explained that it comes from Everbridge, which provides “critical event management platforms” to jurisdictions and organizations. The Burlington, Massachusetts-based company has more details on how they pull in the data, which clients can customize, HERE.
As for the purpose of disseminating the alerts so widely, French said it’s part of the city’s “larger communications strategy to spread awareness” about the curfew.
“Our goal is that these reminders encourage parents and guardians to check in on their young people and connect young people with available programming opportunities especially tailored for them to enjoy throughout the summer.”
Tobey Southwick took her annoyance to Facebook and learned more when her friends-only post gained traction.
Even former residents no longer living in Maryland were chiming in to say they had gotten the texts and robo-calls.
She said she doesn’t mind government agencies having her number. Some uses of automated texting, like the health department’s alerts during the heart of the pandemic, were helpful.
But in this case, she says, “It just seems like a waste of time and possibly effort and money.”
French said there is no extra cost to send out messages to the pre-existing notification system.
With residents who long ago moved away continuing to receive the alerts, we asked how often the system adds or removes people?
“Everbridge updates the contact information monthly,” French said.
Another slight irritation for some is that these texts, unlike other automated messages, don’t appear to allow recipients to opt-out.
According to online chatter, texting the usual “STOP” has worked for some people, despite not being a given option. Others have resorted to blocking the senders’ number altogether.
Tobey Southwick said she was worried opting out would unsubscribe her from other important alerts from the City in the future. She was right to worry.
“The system will allow the resident to unsubscribe from phone calls,” he said. “Unfortunately, when they do, that will unsubscribe them from all emergency alerts.”
“We plan on being relentless”
The texts come as part of the larger debate over the city’s new policy to enforce a curfew for Baltimore residents under the age of 17.
Scott has said the curfew, announced after two teens were shot at the Inner Harbor in April, would be tailored to protect young people and connect them to services.
Critics argue it will do little to prevent violence and victimization, but instead be disproportionately enforced against Black and brown populations, targeting youth who’ve done nothing wrong.
Enforced on weekends and holidays, the new restrictions prohibit unaccompanied youth ages 13 and under from being on the streets between 9 p.m. and 6 a.m. and prohibits youth ages 14 to 16 from being out between 11 p.m. and 6 a.m.
To minimize interaction between youth and the police, the city is carrying out the curfew using non-law enforcement personnel.
City employees, who receive overtime pay or comp time, are tasked with observing popular destinations at the Inner Harbor, Fells Point and Federal Hill.
Teenagers who do not appear to be old enough are advised to go home. Those who refuse may be transported on a school bus a Youth Connection Centers. Any young person not picked up by a parent or guardian by night’s end will be referred to social services.
While youth must consent to be transported to one of two designated centers, officials say they are confident a majority will oblige.
“At the end of the day, if a young person decides that they are not going to disperse again, we won’t be forcing young people into vehicles,” Shantay Jackson, director of MONSE, said last month.
“But I suspect that we’ll either see young people go home — because we plan on being pretty relentless — or getting into the vehicle.”
While Mayor Scott has called the launch of the curfew initiative “a complete success,” the program is having difficulty finding observers.
“I’m not a Karen”
Are the curfew alerts being sent out widely to encourage people to turn in violators?
If so, Tobey Southwick is adamant that she won’t do that.
“I do look out my window when I hear odd noises in my neighborhood and do the Gladys Kravitz thing,” she said, referencing Samantha and Darrin’s infamously nosy neighbor in the old television show “Bewitched.”
“But I don’t yell for Abner unless somebody’s shooting off a gun or something,” she said.
“I may be a Gladys Kravitz. But I’m not a Karen!”