Jon Gambrell, AP, August 13, 2008
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.
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.
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.