When you are walking down the street and an officer approaches you, asks for your identification and purpose for being at that place at that time … how do you respond? Do you automatically comply because you have nothing to hide? Do you feel like your personal freedoms are being infringed upon?
In the small town of Helena-West Helena, Ark., last week the mayor imposed of a curfew on a 10-block area that had been recently filled with gunfire. Apparently fists flew after a fight over $6 from a dice game, and soon fists were replaced by bullets for the next three weeks.
Large plastic barrels with curfew signs adorn all the roadways leading into that section of town. Thanks to unanimous City Council support, the police action in one section is spreading citywide. On random nights now, authorities including criminal investigators, county sheriffs and police work 12- to 16-hour shifts making everyone very aware that there is a curfew and they should not be out without reason.
To be clear, this is not a curfew in which the streets are empty of people and cars. Adults are given far more leeway, and minors must be accompanied by an adult after 9 or 10 p.m. On the night we rode along, we saw several people, young and old, walking the streets without being questioned. The officers we were riding with already knew who was who, where they lived, and whether or not they had legitimate business in those neighborhoods. Again, this is only a town with a population of 15,000. Within the first three nights, authorities had already swept up some people with outstanding warrants, arrested others on drug or firearms charges and most important the gunfire in that neighborhood had stopped. Their increased presence on the streets at night is a comfort to some and a source of consternation to others.
The phrasing of whether this is a curfew or a "police saturation" probably is more of a branding and legal question that will likely only be solved in the courts. The mayor says he called it a curfew to increase public awareness, that it is an idea people easily understand.
The ACLU of Arkansas says it is monitoring the situation and that "it will not go unchallenged." Whether that means the group will file a case with a federal court or not remains to be seen. The concerns of the ACLU, as well as of other citizens' rights activist, are that these sorts of curfews are unconstitutional. They say these measures violate the First Amendment freedom to assemble, the Fourth Amendment's protection against unreasonable search and the Fourteenth Amendment's equal protection clause as the police target some areas and not others.
The mayor says he has received e-mails from all over the country – some calling him a fascist, and others wishing he would come to their towns and help clean up their streets. His blog is full of all kinds of stuff – from city council meeting notes, the original proposal for this curfew/police saturation, obituaries for members of his community, and random musings.
The town has an odd name partly because it used to be two different towns till 2006. Neither town wanted to give up their name, even though one word was included in both, but it was settled with a hyphen. It sits in one of the poorest sections of Arkansas, so there is a lot to sing the blues about. In fact it used to be host to a very famous blues radio show and continues to hold an annual Blues Festival that the town folk are still proud of.
For three nights straight in this town, police set up checkpoints and asked everyone for identification. They walked the streets and knocked on doors, and made a number of arrests – some for drug and firearm possession, and some on outstanding warrants. Some people would call this stepped up beat policing, or just cops being cops. But others would call this harassment. If the police weren't aware of the constitutional issues, they certainly are now.