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August 1, 2010

PA tackling ‘crime capital’ perception

— Recently, the News attempted to tackle a perception issue that has existed for decades. The one that says Port Arthur has a higher crime rate than neighboring cities or that Port Arthur is the crime capital of Southeast Texas.

We set out to gather Uniform Crime Report numbers of actual cases of the top seven index crimes and, for the sake of time, have provided the raw crime numbers reported to the FBI of the two largest cities in Jefferson County – Beaumont, with an estimated population of 113,000, and Port Arthur with an estimated population of 57,000. We offer these to you, the reader, because opinion is often better served by fact.

We’ve learned two of the most common contributing factors to this perception issue is the sheer numbers of low-income housing – an estimated 33 percent or about 18, 810 are currently living on some form of public assistance – and the national increase in illegal immigrants, which populate the largest emerging Hispanic gangs in the area.

These are growing issues, not just in Port Arthur, but in Southeast Texas and residents say crime is not just one city’s problem.

Historically, an asphalt line has been drawn along FM 365. This has not only been a jurisdictional line, but a line where further perceptions exist. This is the highway that splits Port Arthur and Nederland, a nearby Mid County city with a completely different socio-economic make-up.

"We do all experience cross-over crime. All the cities limits are touching each other and because of that we have the cross over," said Nederland Chief Darrell Bush. "The good thing is that we’re all fortunate in this area that all the departments have a good relationship with each other and information is vital in our business in clearing cases."

Because of the migratory nature of many of the crimes that are occuring – prostitution rings, car chases, drive-bys, etc. – the city limits where crimes happen don’t give an accurate reflection of the city itself, residents say.

In addition, when people perceive crime in Port Arthur, they commonly think of downtown or the West Side. The numbers do not line up with that perception and locals will flat out tell you "there’s nothing down there to steal."

Who is in the downtown area and West Side are largely senior citizen residents, retired teachers and refinery workers, who want single-family housing and a nest egg for their grandchildren. Businesses, largely training and equipping facilities, are gradually beginning to repopulate the downtown.

Since the city recently enlisted Bob Phillips, "Texas Country Reporter", and his revitalization agency in Dallas, the city has been working diligently to battle the "high crime" perception issue in order to draw new business back to downtown. The city also began enlisting the help of the community in designing "Vision 20-20" – 10-year strategic plan and aggressive effort to turn the ship.

Terry Bearden, president of Concerned Citizens of Port Acres, said the newly released numbers don’t prove Port Arthur’s numbers say low crime, but they don’t necessarily say high crime either.

"It’s a variety of causes, but a lot of the crimes are from people who don’t live here," Bearden said.

He got a first-hand illustration of this point when he went on his first prostitution run with the Port Arthur Police Department. All eight of the Johns arrested were white and not from the city.

This touches on the perception that high crime only happens where diverse populations exist.

"There’s no cultural barriers when it comes to crime," said Henry Barbosa, president of Concerned Citizens of Pear Ridge. "It’s about money. Prostitutes, drug dealers and pimps don’t care about your color."

Another perception is that Port Arthur has gang problems, more so than other cities. While Port Arthur has had more experience in this area, by default of opening its borders to a huge diverse population, the emergent pattern of gangs has coincided with population shifts.

For instance, at one time African-American gangs were prevalent when that population was still small in number, and then the Asian gangs became prevalent after the Vietnamese exiles began to populate Port Arthur in the 1970s. Today, clashing Hispanic illegal immigrants are the emergent gang group.

Shelba Spears, of Griffing Park Neighborhood Watch, said there’s a growing diversity in her neighborhood and she’s using that as an opportunity to form a relationship with new neighbors – which has fastly become a dying art in American culture.

"I think if we could get back to neighbor helping neighbor, that we would be getting the neighborhoods cleaned up," Spears said. She added, in her role on the Port Arthur Neighborhood Action Council, the most important part of the job is getting to know the names and faces of each resident.

Others agree it makes it difficult for criminal organizations to stand when the city government is healthy, since rebellious cells thrive in communities where there is breakdown.

"I think in Port Arthur, our city council is healthier now and is willing to help us solve this problem,” Port Arthur City Councilman John Beard said. "This group recognizes what we do and they support us."

PAPD Police Chief Mark Blanton said a large number of apprehensions occur because people report the crimes. There has always been an option to report a crime anonymously through Crime Stoppers.

"Our citizens have been staying online with our dispatchers, and we are very pleased that our citizens report things," he said.

While there are a number of helpful gadgets to help officers detect crime from afar – such as license readers, Amber Alert for missing persons, and night eyes – the greatest deterent can be a resident, aware of their surroundings, who reports crime when they see it happen.

Betty Derese, owner of Mr. T’s Health Store, owned a business in Port Arthur for 43 years on Gulfway Drive. After being robbed at gunpoint, she decided to move her business to Nederland eight years ago.

"It might be that Port Arthur reports more often," Derese said. She said since moving to Nederland, she’s also had her share of incidents happen. A couple months ago, her store, Nederland Garage and Red’s Barbecue were all broken into overnight at her location in the 2200 block of Nederland Avenue.

"A lot of times the grass looks greener on the other side, but when you look at what’s happening in other parts of the County, you learn that’s not true," Blanton said.

Mayor Deloris "Bobbie" Prince indicated the city has been diligently trying to attract businesses and people while battling these high crime perceptions.

"The thing is, if you say something long enough people tend to believe it. But if you get the facts out, they will believe in those facts instead of the opinions. So if you’re going to play those tapes over and over in your head, let them be fact.

"We want people’s opinions based on truth. Port Arthur is a wonderful community to live in. It’s as safe as we can make it. I love Port Arthur and I’m going to continue to defend it," she said.

smartinez@panews.com

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