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Arkansas town imposes 'martial law' style lockdown
David Edwards and Diane Sweet
Published: Tuesday August 12, 2008

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HELENA-WEST HELENA - A neighborhood here is on police lock down, all over a $6, or maybe $8, debt.

The feud started earlier this week, when a man recently released from jail refused to pay the money back to a neighbor, residents and authorities said.

A group of men jumped the ex-inmate and fired guns into the air and into homes, mostly after dark, residents and authorities said, prompting some people to sleep on the floors for fear of being struck by stray bullets. The man and his buddies retaliated - with guns, as well - turning the already high crime neighborhood into what residents said sounded for a few nights like a combat zone.

As a consequence, Mayor James Valley on Thursday called for a lockdown of the roughly 10-block neighborhood northwest of City Hall, in what was formerly West Helena.

No loitering. No walking the streets. "No hanging out."

On Thursday night, 18-20 police officers carrying M-16 rifles, shotguns and night-vision scopes saturated the "cur-1 few zone" for 5/2 hours, arresting about eight people and confiscating drugs and loaded weapons, police said.

"It's something akin to martial law in that particular area," Valley said. "It got to the point where somebody was going to get seriously hurt or killed if we didn't do something."

Residents in the lock down area have mixed feelings about the mayor's executive order, which Valley said he would keep in place until the City Council can come up with a long-term plan at its Aug. 19 meeting. Some residents like the police presence. Others call it overwhelming. The American Civil Liberties Union of Arkansas calls it unconstitutional. "In a way, I like it because they shot up my house, too," said Oliver of 234 Second St. "And in a way, I don't like it because a few minutes ago I had to walk to the store and the police stopped me and asked me what I was doing and where I was going."

Oliver, a 29-year-old with bloodshot eyes who was in his carport drinking a Natural Ice beer Friday afternoon, said his home had five bullet holes in it from the mayhem earlier in the week.

The lock down will be enforced 24 hours a day, according to the order, and all pedestrian and vehicle traffic will be subject to stop and investigation.

Moreover, the city's Code Enforcement Department will be issuing nuisance-abatement evictions for people living in the lock down area in any house where at least three previous criminal violations have occurred, the order said.

The ACLU of Arkansas sent Valley a letter Friday, calling the order "blatantly unconstitutional on numerous grounds" and demanding that he lift the order immediately.

"First, such curfews have never been allowed under the laws of the United States, barring riot, insurrection, or natural disaster," ACLU attorney Holly Dickson wrote in the letter. "Not one case has ever allowed for the imposition of searches, seizures and house arrest against innocent citizens because of the high crime rate in a particular city."

The letter also claims that the language in the order violates the Fourth Amendment and that placing adults under house arrest is unconstitutional. "Notwithstanding the City Code and Curfew Order, the residents of Helena-West Helena have the right to sit under shade trees in their front yard, to ride their bicycles along the streets, protest this policy, and drive around the city with the full protections of the First, Fourth, and Fourteenth Amendments," the letter continued.

Valley said he hadn't read the letter as of Friday night but that he's "not concerned about the ACLU."

"I invite them to move in on Second Street and be up all night with people shooting at them," Valley said. "That’s my comment to them." Valley called the situation extraordinary.

People in the area had evaded police by falsely reporting criminal activity in other areas of town and falsely reporting shots fired from vehicles that didn't exist, Police Chief Fred Fielder said. Ronald Scott, the city's assistant police chief, said police are using common sense when dealing with pedestrians in the lock down area. If they are polite and have a good reason to be out or walking, then police will let them go. If they are suspicious or have "a smart mouth," they will be told to get inside, leave the area or be arrested, Scott said. Matt DeCample, a spokesman for Gov. Mike Beebe, said he is aware of the situation in Helena-West Helena but that the state hasn't been asked to offer any assistance.

"It's a municipal matter," he said.

Beth Wiedower, field representative for the Arkansas Delta Rural Heritage Development Initiative, said the "crime wave" in no way should affect tourism in the city known for its jazz and blues.

Brenda Kelly, a resident in the lock down area, said she's happy that the curfew is in place.

"Since this began, it's more quiet and peaceful around here," she said. "I think they're doing a wonderful job. Prior to this, the kids were dealing drugs right in the middle of the street, stopping cars saying 'hey, hey, what you got.'

"You couldn't walk down the streets. Your little kids couldn't, either. We were just that scared."

Other residents say their rights are being violated.

"It's messed up," said Daniel Pimpleton, 16. "You're not free, and you're supposed to be free. You can't go outside and walk the streets. Look - the entire area is empty. There's nobody out here."

Pimpleton said police warned him that if he and his friends roamed the streets, they could be arrested.

Courtney Otis expressed similar disappointment about the lock down. "We're grown, and the mayor's trying to give us a curfew," he said. "We don't need no curfew. The mayor is overreacting. "He can't stop nobody from shooting. If they're going to shoot, they're going to shoot."

A copy of the ACLU's letter to the Mayor of Helena-West Helena is available online here.

This video is from, broadcast August 9, 2008.

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(With wire reports)