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.