In an effort to reduce violent crime in Pine Bluff, the city’s police department is taking a page from the playbook of another department with a new initiative aimed at identifying and tracking known violent offenders.
What’s different about the new approach, however, is that the offenders will be notified in advance that they’re being tracked and given a choice: stop any criminal behavior or potentially go to prison for a long period of time.
Deputy Chief Kelvin Sergeant said the idea for the new initiative has been brewing since Jeff Hubanks became the department’s interim chief on Jan. 1, 2013. Hubanks has since been named the permanent chief.
“When Chief Hubanks came in last January, we all talked about it and came to the conclusion that the way we had been addressing crime for the last 20 or 25 years was not working,” Sergeant said Friday.
Sergeant said that when problems were reported in a specific area, the old way of doing things was to send a bunch of police officers into the area and literally stop everyone that moved in that area — a complete zero-tolerance program.
“Sure we might’ve gotten some of the bad guys but we also interfered with a lot of law-abiding citizens who just happened to live or work in that area,” Sergeant said. “We decided we needed to focus more on the individuals involved in violent crime.”
The new approach, which resulted in the creation of the Violent Crimes Task Force, is based on a successful program from High Point, N .C., a city that Sergeant said is much like Pine Bluff.
Sergeant said that when the High Point program was created in the mid-90’s, that city “had the same type of problems we have.”
At that time, Sergeant said, High Point had a high rate of violent crimes, including homicides, a major drug problem and a crime rate that was so high it resulted in a mass exodus of people from the city.
Local law enforcement officials in High Point got together with state and federal law enforcement officials and developed a set of criteria to identify and target known offenders — the same criteria that the Violent Crime Task Force in Pine Bluff is using.
“They have to be 18 years old or older,” Sergeant said. “They have to be on probation or parole. They have to have a valid criminal history and at least one gun-related arrest. If they meet that criteria, they’re going to be targeted.”
Research to identify known violent offenders started late last year, using arrest records, court dispositions and information from the Arkansas Department of Probation and Parole. From an initial list of 396 individuals, 19 were determined to fit the criteria established for the program immediately, while many of the others had been charged with but not convicted of violent crimes.
Of those 19, the department decided to focus on nine individuals: Roderick Collier, 36, who is on probation; Ben Creggett, 38, who is on parole; James Green, 55, who is on probation; Henry Hayes, 40, who is on probation; Derrick McAfee, 20, who is on probation; and Brandon Williams, 26, who is on probation. Letters were hand-delivered to each of those men inviting them to a meeting at 6 p.m. Thursday in the City Council Chambers at City Hall.
The other three men on the list — Melvin Sanders, 43, who is on parole; Leroy White Jr., 48, who is on probation; and Jimmy Epperson, 35, who is on parole — are currently incarcerated.
Sergeant said that at Thursday’s meeting, which is open to the public, those offenders who attend will first be offered assistance with things like drug and alcohol treatment, job training, anger management and the like, before local, state and federal officials explain the new program.
The Violent Crime Task Force will include the Pine Bluff, Police Department, the Jefferson County Sheriff’s Office, the Redfield and White Hall police departments, Arkansas State Police, the FBI, Drug Enforcement Administration, Federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, and the U.S. Marshal’s Service, as well as Central Arkansas Crime Stoppers, the prosecuting attorney and U.S. attorney for the Eastern District of Arkansas.
“The chief of police at White Hall or Redfield, for example, can tell them ‘don’t come to my town and do anything because we’re going to be watching you,’” Sergeant said. “If one of these people is arrested on a drug crime, the DEA is also going to get involved. A gun crime, ATF is also going to get involved.”
After an arrest, Prosecuting Attorney S. Kyle Hunter will work with the U.S. Attorney’s Office, reviewing the case and making the decision on whether to prosecute locally or in federal court, with the goal being to determine which option could result in the longest prison sentence.
“We’re going to let them know they’re on our radar,” Sergeant said. “If you re-offend, we’re going to come after you with swift prosecution. We’re not going to cut deals and we’re not going to use you as informants, and if they don’t show up, we’re not going to take them off our radar.”
The names of the individuals on the list will be flagged so that police officers all over the county and elsewhere will know, and if one of them is arrested, prosecutors will be notified immediately, regardless of the time of day or night. When the offender goes to court the following day, prosecutors will be there to ask for no bond, or a high bond or a cash bond, Sergeant said.
“We’re not going to ask for special consideration for anybody else,” Sergeant said. “For them, it’s going to be business as usual.”
He said the new approach reminds him of a similar effort in 1998 or 1999 under former Police Chief Brad King that targeted several families involved in criminal activity and resulted in lengthy prison sentences for some of them.
“That program stopped and we didn’t try to keep it going,” Sergeant said. “This one is not going to stop. This is the way we’re going to do business from now on. This is the way we’re going to operate.”
Capt. Skip Elliott will coordinate the Violent Crime Task Force. Elliott said that every three months, a new group of violent offenders will be selected, and invited to one of the “call-in meetings.”
As to the success of the program at High Point, Sergeant said “they’ve been doing it for 17 years and their crime rate is down 50 percent.
“Their population has increased 52 percent and if we can get just a portion of those results, we’re going to be very happy,” he said.