Pine Bluff: on patrol in the most dangerous little town in America

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Pine Bluff, Arkansas, is an unremarkable place – in all but one aspect. Only Detroit has more crime per head of population. David Usborne patrols with the local police

To visit the jail in Pine Bluff, Arkansas, early on a weekday night in winter 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 infractions like loitering and shoplifting. What could possibly shatter the calm?

Officer Rick Bunting can only smile. He has drawn the short straw today, picked by Police Chief Jeff Hubank to make room in the front of his squad car for a visiting journalist. “Keep him safe,” the chief 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 a population of 49,000, 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 (population 1.8 million), based on violent crime statistics such as murder, rape and kidnapping.

As we leave, around 7.30pm, a new reluctant guest arrives in a wheelchair and hospital pyjamas. He the day's first shooting case, hit in the back of the legs. I get the sense we'll be coming back here before the night is out, when things won't be quite so peaceful.

We are on patrol in Zone One – not the worst part of town, but nearly. As we leave the jail, Bunting clicks his seatbelt, but not around him; it's just to silence the electronic chimes. I will be using mine. At any moment, we could a get a “Code Three” alert and the gentle cruising of the darkened streets, mostly to scare the drug dealers, users and prostitutes who mill around the town's tatty apartment buildings, will suddenly become a terror ride of sirens, lights and skidding tyres. Bunting, with crew-cut grey hair, sighs. “This used to be a super place to live,” he says.

That Pine Bluff is not in its prime is obvious. Main Street is a parade of boarded-up shops and businesses. Half-way down, the giant and once splendid Hotel Pines, which opened in 1913, is falling in on itself, the tiled floor of the lobby littered with chunks of broken marble and pigeon droppings. 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 concedes during a conversation in his office at police headquarters. “That equates to about seven times the national average per capita. To have 18 homicides is 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 in 2012, according to 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 incident was caught on tape, and acoustic analysis shows that the two men fired at exactly the same moment, the bullets passing mid-way between them. The suspect died instantly; Hadley was saved by his bullet-proof vest. The tie he wore that day is on the wall by his desk with a bullet hole through it. But even that experience 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've got to make difference. 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. Or the pleasure they take marching me to an abandoned house on the edge of a wood, its ceilings falling in and its walls adorned with graffiti in blood red paint reading “666” and “F*** you, Jesus”. This, they say, laughing, is the haunt of the town's Devil worshippers. It really is.

But the radio comes alive. “Armed disturbance, South Cherry.” There are 11 cop cars out tonight and most have arrived their 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 crossed the threshold and been shot dead, the police wouldn't have had a thing to say about it.

Then comes a Code Three: a house is burning down; someone might be inside. There is no one, happily, and the fire brigade has barely put out the fire before the owner is giving a statement on the street. She seems oddly happy. She had had an altercation earlier with some neighbourhood youths and they threatened to “get her”. She had assumed that meant they were going to shoot her. Burning her house down instead seemed like a good trade.

Oddly, it's a man the police see almost daily who appears to be 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, at 11pm, 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 who spat at the officers arresting him for domestic battery.

They pull him from the car, slam him face-down on the cement and 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 knocked him to the ground with a Taser and put him in the restraining chair, legs and arms strapped down.

Chief Hubank retired a year ago after 27 years on the Pine Bluff force, but was drafted into the job of Police Chief last month when the town's new mayor fired his predecessor for incompetence.

He wants people to know what he's up against. In our conversation, 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 ventures, before explaining that his department is adopting new tactics, with less random harassment of possible suspects and more targeting of the people at the top of the crime chain in the town. “We are going to remove the randomness of what we are doing,” he says.

If Hubank can cut those 18 murders to just nine this year, that will satisfy him, he says, even if it will still leave Pine Bluff far ahead of the national average. (There have been two in 2013 already.) And he will build from there. “I know, to a moral certainty, we will fix this town and the turnaround will gain momentum.”

Unsafe cities: highest us crime rates

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

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