The most dangerous little town in America

By David Usborne

Pine Bluff, Arkansas, seems quiet enough, but only Detroit has more crime per capita

The abandoned buildings in downtown Pine Bluff are a testimony to vanished prosperity. Photo / WikimediaCommons
The abandoned buildings in downtown Pine Bluff are a testimony to vanished prosperity. Photo / WikimediaCommons

To visit the jail in Pine Bluff, Arkansas, early on a week night is to delude yourself that the town can't be as bad as they say.

Three men sit quietly in their cells and the arrest register shows only 11 new arrivals all day, mostly for paltry sins such as loitering and shoplifting. What could possibly shatter the calm?

Officer Rick Bunting makes room in his squad car for a visiting reporter.

"Keep him safe," Police Chief Jeff Hubank warns. "And keep him in the car if stuff is going down."

Somehow we end up mostly forgetting that second part.

Pine Bluff has nine prisons, 90 churches and 49,000 people, down from 65,000 three decades ago.

The town and its surrounds, swelling the population to 100,000, has recently been ranked the second most dangerous metropolitan area in America after Detroit (1.8 million), based on violent crime statistics such as murder, rape and kidnapping.

As we leave about 7.30pm, a new reluctant guest arrives in a wheelchair and hospital garb. He is the day's first shooting case, hit in the legs.

We are on patrol in Zone One - not the worst part of town, but nearly.

Bunting sighs. "This used to be a super place to live," he says.

Main St is a parade of boarded-up shops and businesses. Halfway down, the once-splendid Hotel Pines, which opened in 1913, is falling in on itself.

Testimony to vanished prosperity is everywhere, including the abandoned industrial buildings, left to the mercy of vagabonds who strip them of their wiring to get money for drugs.

"Pine Bluff has just sort of faded away," says Bunting.

But it's the crime rate that preoccupies people here most.

"We had 18 murders last year," Hubank said. "That equates to about seven times the national average per capita ... [It's] just an outrageous number for a town this size."

All the usual dynamics are at play, including poverty and bad schools. "We have kids coming out of school who can't fill out a job application. They can't even write a freaking sentence or know where to put the pronoun," Hubank laments.

"What employer is going to want to employ them?" And then there are the drugs. People who buy and sell them accounted for almost all the murders last year, said Hubank.

"The reality is, the little old white lady with the kitten on her lap is perfectly safe in this town. But if you are slinging dope on the east side, you are looking to pay with your life."

It's dangerous for the police officers, too. Ask Captain Kelven Hadley, 46, who in 2011 found himself staring into the muzzle of a pistol being held by a man he was pursuing for holding up a petrol station. The two men fired at the same moment. The suspect died instantly; Hadley was saved by his bullet-proof vest.

But that didn't deter him.

"I will not allow anyone to dictate where I am going to raise my family," says Hadley, an 18-year veteran of the Pine Bluff force. "I want to make a difference. That is the No 1 reason why I love what I do ... I wouldn't accept a job anywhere else."

For some officers, the danger is part of the draw. "We're adrenaline monkeys," admits Officer Kevin Kirk. "Some of it is really bad, and you have to stand back or it overwhelms you."

Half-joking, he says it helps to have a "sick, twisted sense of humour".

That may explain the firecracker that went off, just like a gunshot, as we walked through one of the empty factory buildings, sending the only one of us not in on the joke leaping several inches into the air.

But the radio comes alive. "Armed disturbance, South Cherry." There are 11 cop cars out tonight and most have arrived there before us. A man high on something tried to barge his way into a home, only to be met by the owner wielding a shotgun.

In these parts, if the man had entered and been shot dead, the police wouldn't have said a thing about it.

Then comes a Code Three: a house is burning down; someone may be inside. Happily, that's not so.

Oddly, it's a man the police see almost daily who seems the biggest threat. "I've got a real f***ing gun and I'm going to shoot you!" he yells.

It takes 15 minutes, handcuffs and the threat of a shock with the Taser gun to get him into the back of Kirk's car. And so it's back to the jail.

"He's a spitter," someone shouts as a third squad car arrives at the jail with another candidate for a night in the cells, a very drunk white guy arrested for domestic battery.

They force a kind of balaclava over his head with netting around the nose; he can breathe but not spit. When he's finally in a cell, he unzips his trousers and urinates. The jail guard, a woman who could make Mike Tyson cower, explodes: "Either you are going to wipe it up or you are going to lick it up."

Bunting and I go out briefly to fill our squad car with petrol, so we miss seeing the man set fire to the loo roll they gave him to do the wiping. That's when they Tasered him and strapped him in the restraining chair.

Chief Hubank retired a year ago after 27 years on the Pine Bluff force, but was drafted in as police chief last month when the new mayor fired his predecessor for incompetence.

He is by turns despairing and determined. "It's a wonder it wasn't 118 murders [last year]. I guess it could be much worse." He plans to target the people at the top of the crime chain.

"We are going to remove the randomness of what we are doing."

He says he will be happy if he can cut those 18 murders to nine this year, even if it is still ahead of the national average, and then build from there.

Danger lurks

US cities and metropolitan areas by per-capita serious crime rates, as ranked by Washington-based CQ Press:

1. Detroit-Livonia-Dearborn, Michigan

2. Pine Bluff, Arkansas

3. Flint, Michigan

4. Memphis, Tennessee/Mississippi,Arkansas

5. Stockton, California

6. New Orleans, Louisiana

7. Myrtle Beach, South Carolina

8. Little Rock, Arkansas

9. Mobile, Alabama

10. Jackson, Tennessee

- Independent

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