HELENA-WEST HELENA, Ark. (AP) - Police likely will expand their 24-hour curfew patrols beyond the 10 blocks currently watched by officers armed with military rifles and night-vision goggles, the police chief said Tuesday.
Police Chief Fred Fielder said the patrols have won the support of community members and city leaders in the wake of random shootings in a neighborhood beset by drug trafficking violence. However, officials with the American Civil Liberties Union of Arkansas say the surveillance likely violates the constitutional rights of those living in the neighborhood.
"We've had people call us, expressing concern for their children," Fielder told The Associated Press. "They had to sleep on the floor, because of stray bullets."
So far, police have arrested 32 people during the operation that began last week. Fielder said 10 of those arrests came on felony charges, including the arrest of two people carrying both drugs and weapons in a neighborhood that was once a part of West Helena.
Fielder said officers have not arrested anyone for violating the curfew, noting those on foot and vehicle patrols only stop to question those about why they are outside. Those without good answers or acting nervously get additional attention, Fielder said.
Fielder said officers in the field carry military-style M-16 or M-4 rifles, some equipped with laser sights. Other officers carry short-barrel shotguns.
"We're not here to play," the police chief said. "The citizens need to be protected. The criminal element is heavily armed" with pistols and AK-47s.
Fielder said much of the violence came from crack and marijuana dealers in the city, who fire wildly in the neighborhood. He noted how the city of Hartford, Conn., recently began its own curfew after violence.
The City Council is scheduled to discuss the curfew during a meeting scheduled for noon Tuesday.
The ACLU sent a letter to the city, saying Mayor James Valley's order for the curfew violates the Fourth Amendment and that placing adults under house arrest is unconstitutional.
The city, created in 2006 after the rival cities of Helena and West Helena joined, is in one of the nation's poorest regions, trailing even parts of Appalachia in its standard of living. Phillips County lost a third of its population from 1970 to 2000 and, of the 24,107 people who remain, more than a quarter live in poverty.
©2008 Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.