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PINE BLUFF -- Candiss Caldwell says there are two cultures in Pine Bluff.

One side is optimistic about residents' ability to revitalize the area and return it to the more vibrant Pine Bluff that the 31-year-old Caldwell remembers from childhood. The other side "doesn't see any growth," she says. "All they see is the disparity."

Those two perspectives were on display on Main Street on Wednesday, the morning after the city's fourth fatal shooting in three days. At a salon and barbershop just a few blocks apart, residents grappled with what the killings would mean for the city's future and its unwelcome reputation as a hotbed of violent crime.

At Pop's Barber & Beauty Shop, a barber's electric clippers hummed as he swiped them over his client's head and ticked off the problems contributing to the city's "steady decline." He was critical of area schools and what he described as few job opportunities, a fractious City Council and limited options for young people.

"They ain't got nothing to do. ... They just out here acting out," he said. "We ain't got nothing here."

But up the street, where Caldwell works as a part-time bookkeeper at Uptown Salon & Boutique (she also owns a graphic design business), salon owner Wil Jenkins said he wouldn't allow recent violence to stand in the way of his efforts to re-energize the city's downtown and bring Pine Bluff back.

"[Violent crime is] not stopping the plans," he said. "We're moving forward. Every city has to deal with crime."

Jenkins, who moved to Pine Bluff to be near grandkids a few years ago and said he owns four buildings nearby, had marched in an anti-violence demonstration on Main Street that same morning, affixing a "Stop the Violence" sign to the front of the salon.

Though the surrounding blocks have their share of boarded-up buildings and shattered plate glass, Jenkins pointed to signs of life in the neighborhood, including his salon, a new bar across the street and a cupcake shop and coffee place around the corner on Barraque Street.

Although he called on community members to "come together in unity" to work against violence, Jenkins also expressed frustration with the stereotypes about the city, saying Pine Bluff's small size makes crime look worse than it is.

"I despise that stigma," he said. "We gotta get rid of that stigma."

A VIOLENT WEEK

The recent homicides comprise a run of violence that began with a fatal shooting the morning of Aug. 26 and ended with what Pine Bluff Chief of Police Kelvin Sergeant described as a domestic shooting Tuesday. The crimes brought the city's total number of homicides to 16 this year and injured three additional people, according to police reports.

Although that number is still behind the 19 homicides recorded through August 2017, homicides have trended upward in Pine Bluff since 2015 and 2016, when 13 and 10 homicides were reported for the entire year, Sergeant said. That number spiked to 28 by the end of 2017.

Sergeant, a 24-year veteran of the force who became chief in February, said the department isn't sure what has caused the change in the murder rate, particularly since enforcement efforts actually have increased. According to "crimes against persons" statistics provided by training and public information officer Richard Wegner, violent crime overall was slightly down at the end of July compared with last year, but Sergeant said the recent slayings will "undoubtedly" feed the city's reputation as a place where violent crime happens.

"I promise you, there are so many positive things that go on in Pine Bluff," he said. "However, what the town tends to have a stigma associated with it is the homicides, partly [because it's] a community of 45,000-49,000 people. That's too many for this type of community, the size."

According to data from Arkansas Crime Information Center, Pine Bluff's homicide rate stands out when compared with some other Arkansas cities. In Hot Springs, a city of roughly 36,900 people, the police department reported eight murders in 2017 and four in 2016. In Fort Smith, which is almost twice as big as Pine Bluff with approximately 88,000 residents, murders also fell into the single digits, with seven in 2017 and four in 2016.

The past week's events in Pine Bluff were complicated by the fact that, as of Wednesday, police didn't believe the homicides were related to one another, or to an uptick in gang-related violence in the area. Though police are still investigating the first two shootings, no victims were known to have a gang affiliation. (An arrest has been made in the Aug. 28 shooting; the department is forwarding a case file for the Aug. 27 shooting of Corey Pitts to the prosecuting attorney's office.)

Sergeant said he's seen social media chatter in which community members have concluded the four crimes are related, which he called "misinformation." The department doesn't have a theory as to why the shootings happened around this time, he said.

"I couldn't explain it to you," he said. "I really don't understand. There's nothing we have identified that would be able to say, this was the outlying cause."

Sergeant said he doesn't expect the uptick in homicides to continue, but he is "retooling" enforcement, in part to address recent burglaries near crime hotspots, particularly between 11th Avenue and 30th Avenue and from Olive Street to Hazel Street.

In spite of the recent shootings, he said he believes community members have and are spreading the wrong idea about the area, where he says much of the crime is related to drug use. Sergeant said he knows people who are "scared to go out and go shopping, because they think that they're going to become a victim of a crime. No. It's not so," he said.

"This city has a very bad negativity associated with it, and we have to do a better job of marketing the good things that go on in Pine Bluff. There are some good people here -- good, hardworking people here. And some of the efforts that they do are overshadowed with the negativity."

CHANGING LANDSCAPE

To drive through Pine Bluff is to sense some of its challenges.

While some neighborhoods -- including the quiet, well-maintained West 40th Avenue block that was the site of Tuesday's homicide -- are utterly unremarkable, other areas are dotted with houses with knee-high grass and peeling paint, bounded by chain-link fence sections hanging at increasingly acute angles. At The Pines mall, so many storefronts are vacant that the hallways seem dark.

U.S. Census Bureau annual population estimates suggest a fast-shrinking city, falling from 49,083 residents at the time of the 2010 Census to an estimated 42,984 residents in 2017. The bureau also estimates a stark poverty rate for the city (32.5 percent, relative to 18.8 percent in Arkansas overall).

Elected officials are adamant they are trying to turn the city's image around, both with outsiders and residents. Mayor Shirley Washington said despite the "negatives" the city frequently hears from the community, "it's not ever as bad to us, on our end of it, as it sounds."

She said the city has worked to bring back activities to keep younger people "constructively engaged," and is focused on renewing the area's schools.

Such efforts come at a time when the state's Department of Education has identified the Pine Bluff School District as being in a state of "fiscal distress," putting the district at risk of a state takeover. The issue now goes to the state Board of Education, which has the final say in whether the district is classified as being in fiscal distress.

Washington also said she's seeing people, especially people who grew up in Pine Bluff and now are in their 30s or 40s, move back to the city. But a year and eight months into her four-year term, she says dealing with homicides has become her biggest challenge.

"For me, [the recent homicides were] so frustrating that I couldn't even describe it to you," Washington said. "It's so senseless, and it's such a great loss."

Washington reiterated there are plans to step up patrols in high-crime areas, and said that the community has discussed a local version of the TenPoint Coalition. The initiative, which has programs operating in Boston and Indianapolis, works to combat violence by sending faith and community leaders into neighborhoods to engage with at-risk populations, work on gang mediation and facilitate youth development and coaching programs.

Washington also has seen area neighborhood associations become more active. She said she believes ramped-up community involvement will help curtail violence and change perceptions of the city.

"Eventually we feel like the tide will turn, and some of the negative stigma will be removed," Washington said.

WORKING TOGETHER

Some neighborhood and community organizing efforts to take on violence and try and shift the narrative about the city already are taking shape.

Deborah Davis, who has served as neighborhood watch coordinator for the Pine Bluff Police Department for the past two years, said there are now 14 different neighborhood watch groups operating in the city's four wards. The groups' monthly meetings feature speakers such as the police chief, and groups discuss and tackle issues specific to that area of the city.

Other efforts have a more grassroots feel. Jamal Gordon, 25, serves as the music minister at Old St. James Missionary Baptist Church when he's not working as a funeral director or running The Leaf Cigar and Pipe Shop on Camden Road. In just a few hours after the most recent homicide, he put together the Aug. 29 march on Main Street that was attended by several local faith leaders and the mayor. Sergeant estimates 60-70 people attended the march.

"I felt like the Lord was telling me, OK, that's what you gotta do," Gordon said. "You have to march, you have to make your presence known, you have to be seen ... [and] let the people know that we see what's going on in this community."

Although Gordon, a lifelong Pine Bluff resident, has been "super sad" about recent homicides, he said he's committed to involvement with the TenPoint Coalition and wants to help correct outbreaks of violence in the area. He also shares the opinion that homicides have a greater impact on how people feel about Pine Bluff, relative to other places, because of its small size.

It's sustained community involvement, he believes, that will change the tenor of the area.

"It might take 20 years, it might take 40 years ... it might take that long. But to have a plan in place, to at least try to fix it, that's what we're aiming for," he said.

A Section on 09/03/2018

Print Headline: Slayings a challenge for Pine Bluff

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