Crime spikes northward in Southern cities

Small Southern cities, like Pine Bluff, Ark., now rank ahead of urban giants in crime per capita, FBI says.

When the elderly walk for exercise at the Pines Shopping Mall, they warn one another: Whatever you do, don't come here at night. It's not safe.

Pine Bluff's high crime rate has been the talk of the town recently in restaurants, barber shops, and at the mall. This small Southern city has received an unwanted honor from the Federal Bureau of Investigation: second in the nation for per-capita crime in 2000, and among the Top 5 in six crime categories.

The only solace Pine Bluff - population 55,000 - can seek is in the numbers from Tuscaloosa, Ala. That city ranked No. 1.

"We are doing things to change the climate here," says Pine Bluff Mayor Dutch King, who has been on the job less than a year. "It takes time to change statistics, and these numbers are down from last year."

Pine Bluff ranks first on the FBI lists in violent crime, aggravated assault, and burglary; third in property crime and murder; and fourth in rape. And many of its fellow chart-toppers on the 2000 Uniform Crime Report also hail from south of the Mason-Dixon line.

The South has always lagged behind the rest of the country in many areas, including education and socioeconomic challenges. Crime is yet another instance in which the South needs to get with the times, says Barry Gildea, acting president of the Memphis Shelby Crime Commission.

"A lot of major cities addressed crime in the 1980s and '90s," says Mr. Gildea. "Memphis and this area didn't. I think that's what you are seeing here."

From Tuscaloosa to Jackson, Tenn., law-enforcement officials, mayors, and chambers of commerce presidents are working to reassure citizens that their cities aren't as bad as they appear in federal rankings.

Pine Bluff sits in the southeast corner of the state on the edge of the Mississippi Delta, a region known for its flat, fertile farming land, but also for its vast poverty. In the 1980s, Pine Bluff ranked as one of the worst places to live in the United States.

The town hosts a paper mill, chicken processing plants, and the Pine Bluff Arsenal, which houses 12 percent of the nation's stockpile of chemical weapons.

The once-vibrant downtown has dried up. A multimillion-dollar arts center often sits empty, because few tourists, and even fewer art connoisseurs, drop in to see the abstract paintings here. Denise Huggins, a professor in criminal justice at the University of Arkansas, says crime in the South feeds off other socioeconomic problems connected with the region. She lists high unemployment, lower incomes, and warmer weather, which allow people - and criminals - to be outdoors more often, as reasons for crime. Mix them together with lack of gun control, and bad things happen, she says.

"We love our guns in the South," says Dr. Huggins. "Where there are more guns, you will see more violence. And down in south Arkansas, people really love their guns."

The unemployment rate is 7.1 percent in Pine Bluff - well above the state's 4.4 percent and the nation's 5.4 percent rate.

But Huggins adds another reason crime statistics in the South may be higher than in other regions: better reporting. Poor and middle-class Southerners report crime more often, she says, partly because they feel as if they have a duty, and partly because they really need their stolen property back. The wealthy aren't as likely to call 911.

Also, the reporting system for the FBI is voluntary. Some cities such as Atlanta, St. Louis, Chicago, and Indianapolis don't even appear on the list.

In Pine Bluff, officials cite their own, newer crime figures, showing crime down by 24 percent in the past 12 months. "It's not fair," says Lt. Pete Dennis, a police spokesman. "We report one set of stats that shows we improved, and then they put out this list."

At the popular Rivergate restaurant, where Southern delicacies like catfish and fried chicken are staples, many residents ponder why community leaders don't address the city's problems instead of blaming the statistics. "We now have an international bad reputation as a basket of crime. That can't be good for the economics of the city," says William McGhee, a resident and former economics professor. "They need to come up with a plan to make this place safer. Numbers or no numbers, we all know crime can be lowered here."

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