Crime-ridden Arkansas town expands 24-hour curfew

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By JON GAMBRELL,

HELENA-WEST HELENA, Ark. – Officers armed with military rifles have been stopping and questioning passers-by in a neighborhood plagued by violence that’s been under a 24-hour curfew for a week.

On Tuesday, the Helena-West Helena City Council voted 9-0 to allow police to expand that program into any area of the city, despite a warning from a lawyer with the American Civil Liberties Union of Arkansas that the police stops were unconstitutional.

Police Chief Fred Fielder said the patrols have netted 32 arrests since they began last week in a 10-block neighborhood in this small town on the banks of the Mississippi River long troubled by poverty. The council said those living in the city want the random shootings and drug-fueled violence to stop, no matter what the cost.

“Now if somebody wants to sue us, they have an option to sue, but I’m fairly certain that a judge will see it the way the way the citizens see it here,” Mayor James Valley said. “The citizens deserve peace, that some infringement on constitutional rights is OK and we have not violated anything as far as the Constitution.”

The area under curfew, in what used to be a West Helena neighborhood, sits among abandoned homes and occupied residences in disrepair.

White signs on large blue barrels warn those passing by that the area remains under curfew by order of Mayor James Valley. The order was scheduled to end at 3 p.m. Tuesday, but Valley said the city council’s vote would allow police to have the same powers across Helena-West Helena.

Among the curfew operation’s arrests, 10 came from felony charges, including the arrest of two people carrying both drugs and weapons, Fielder said. The police chief said the officers in the field carry military-style M-16 or M-4 rifles, some equipped with laser sights. Other officers carry short-barrel shotguns. Many dealing crack cocaine and marijuana in the city carry pistols and AK-47 assault rifles, he said.

“We’ve had people call us, expressing concern for their children,” Fielder said. “They had to sleep on the floor, because of stray bullets.”

Fielder said officers had not arrested anyone for violating the curfew, only questioned people about why they were outside. Those without good answers or acting nervously get additional attention, Fielder said.

However, such stops likely violate residents’ constitutional rights to freely assemble and protections against unreasonable police searches, said Holly Dickson, a lawyer for the ACLU of Arkansas who addressed the council at its packed Tuesday meeting. Because of that, Dickson said any convictions coming from the arrests likely would be overturned.

“The residents of these high-crime areas are already victims,” she said. “They’re victims of what are happening in the neighborhoods, they’re victims of fear. But for them to be subject to unlawful stops and questioning … that is not going to ultimately going to help this situation.”

The council rejected Dickson’s claims, at one point questioning the Little Rock-based attorney if she’d live in a neighborhood they described as under siege by wild gunfire and gangs.

“As far as I’m concerned, at 3 o’clock in the morning, nobody has any business being on the street, except the law,” Councilman Eugene “Red” Johnson said. “Anyone out at 3 o’clock shouldn’t be out on the street, unless you’re going to the hospital.”

The curfew is the second under the mayor’s watch since the rival cities of Helena and West Helena merged in 2006. That year, Valley set a nightly citywide curfew after a rash of burglaries and other thefts.

Police in Hartford, Conn., began enforcing a nightly curfew for youths after recent violence, including a weekend shooting that killed a man and wounded six young people.

Helena-West Helena, with 15,000 residents at the edge of Arkansas’ eastern rice fields and farmland, is in one of the nation’s poorest regions, trailing even parts of Appalachia in its standard of living.

In the curfew area, those inside the homes in the watch area peered out of door cracks Tuesday as police cruisers passed. They closed the doors afterward.

A Helena West police car is parked in a neighborhood where a curfew was established by the city’s mayor Tuesday, Aug. 12, 2008 in Helena, Ark. Police will expand their 24-hour curfew patrols beyond the 10 blocks now watched by officers armed with military rifles and night-vision goggles, stopping and questioning anyone who passes by. (AP Photo/Danny Johnston)

  • Morehands

    Point taken. The Americans did at first didn’t realize that our legal system worked differently than theirs and criticized us for it. (but the spokesperson and the magistrate did make us look bad the first time they held their press conference).

    By the way, great use of the word “JACKALOPE”. Its a rabbit with so-called antelope horns. A big phoney looking for attention – just like some folks I met recently in a conversation in a semi-public internet blog.

  • wutless media person ya say?

    BEY MOREHANDS you really believe that foreign detectives were more efficient than the RBPF with ANNA NICOLE? did foreign dects come to the bahamas and take over investigations and find more than ourboys did? from the reports i read and saw in the local press and on us tv i cnat recall that help me wit dat one…cause while our po-po’s lil shady lets not slap them in the face like that naw….ad you really think we were the laughin stock of the world…i disagree i think those jackapoles didnt understand our laws and court procedures and wasnt trying to embrace a system other than what they know…but then thats just people they tend to blast and critize what they know little or nothing about,…just my 5 cents ……

  • wutless media person ya say?

    JACKAPOLES lol

  • Morehands

    WHAT AM I THINKING??? Media and Morehands, allies??? Never that! You on your own buddy. I change my mind. Try some of them other jackalopes on this blog. LOL!!

  • Morehands

    MEDIA!! If you make couple more excellent comments like the one above, I really might start thinking you really have some sense man.

    !!!GREAT COMMENT!!!

    I never saw it that way with all the assistance that we already receive from foreign “consultants” but we refuse help in national security. We’re not shame to borrow money or to bring in so-called foreign experts to make our highly trained Bahamians feel inadequate and stupid, but yet we too shame to ask for help to fight crime. I would have thought that Anna Nicole case showed us how efficient and effective foreign detectives can be. Shooks, our police and judicial systems were the laughing stock of the world.

    Keep it up Media. You might just win an allie.

  • wutless media person ya say?

    i agree media but what do we do about the serious backlogg of cases in the sup court? not to mention the mag court its summer i understand at least 3 magistrates outon vacation this week now while i agree that like everyone else they need vacation but what is to happen? other judges are getting seriously bogg down matters are being held over cost tax payers money we really need change bey

    i hope this AG would not be like those before him and come up with some kind plan hell lie to me if you have to ya know whati mean…cause fa a man who is a practicin lawyer this is his chance to shake somethings up …whatyoull syain man can i geta AMEN ?!?!?!?

  • media

    Morehands I must thank you for your directing us to this article. We owe you great thanks in bring ‘MOREHANDS’ to this site in wising up our nation.

    I cannot understand that we BRING FOREIGNERS to advise on BTC and Foreigners will come to work with the process of BEC. Foreigners can consult to BUILD the roads and foreign money can be borrowed to construct it.

    BUt when it come to getting the Number #1 problem of CRIME under control, our police cannot use additional help on the ground with Foreign assistance? Or when it comes to having more FOREIGN Judges on the Bench its a NO NO?

    WE NEED CHANGE!

    Bahamas Press/ Editor

  • Morehands

    Altec, to answer your question wikipedia says that “based on U.S. Census reports for both cities prior to the merger, the 2000 population of the area comprising Helena-West Helena was 15,012. There were 5,516 households, and 3,765 families residing in the city. The racial makeup of the city was 31.85% White, 66.63% African American, 0.19% Native American, 0.47% Asian, 0.01% Pacific Islander, 0.27% from other races, and 0.58% from two or more races. Hispanic or Latino of any race were 0.89% of the population.”

  • Morehands

    Thanks for posting this news story, Media. When you add a story like this to the one coming out of Antigua which you posted the other day, it really sends a strong message to us as to what are we prepared to do to end the scourge of crime and violence in our nation.

    If (when) I run for parliament I would insist that we hire a cohort of foreign magistrates and police officers for 6 months to increase efficiency and remove the nepotism and who-knows-who defeating our judicial system.

    Our present method is to react when something happens, speed through traffic with lights and horns blazing, go to the scene of the crime to mop up the dead body, beat someone into confession or pin it on a hapless fool, wait five years for the first court hearing, destroy the file because he’s someone’s second cousin and release him on bail to kill again.

  • Altec

    Media do you know what is the ethnic make up of this area? Is it mostly latino, caucasian or afro-american?
    I saw this story on CNN this morning, they interviewed the mayor who is black, but the pictures they showed of the city showed mostly white people.