OPINION | MATTHEW PATE: Keep the record in mind

The voters of Pine Bluff will soon select a slate of city officials. Our community faces an electoral point of no return that should compel every eligible person to vote. Inattentive voting got us here. Only informed and engaged voting will save us.

As we decide who to trust, it's worth considering the record of those who seek reelection. It's crucial we hold officials accountable for what they allowed to happen on their watch. For many local incumbents, the laurels upon which they rest are withered and thin.

We should examine the city's trajectory over the last decade. Population is a good place to start. In 2014, there were (according to the U.S. Census Bureau) 47,058 residents in Pine Bluff. In 2023 (according to USCB intercensal estimates) the population was 39,783. That means approximately 7,275 people (or 727 annually) left Pine Bluff permanently. Despite affordable housing, over 7,000 of your neighbors just gave up on the city. I suspect they didn't do so lightly.

Population loss of this magnitude manifests in many negative ways. At a recent NAACP forum for mayoral candidates, the problem of abandoned buildings was highlighted. I publicly identified this problem over 15 years ago. I wasn't the only one who'd noticed. Even so, current leaders have failed to articulate a firm measurable goal with specific strategies to deal with the issue.

Reduced population means a reduced workforce, which impacts economic development. It also means an extreme concentration of poverty.

While the poverty rate has declined in Pine Bluff, it's still (according to USCB) at 24.9 percent. In contrast, the rest of Arkansas is at 16.8 percent. The U.S. poverty rate is around 12.4 percent.

The middle class fares just as badly. Pine Bluff has the poorest middle class in the state and one of the poorest in the nation. Together, these things lead to neighborhood destabilization, which is the harbinger of crime and disorder.

On the matter of crime, no one in city government appears to understand the social correlates of crime, the fundamentals of systematic crime analysis, or how public policies beyond criminal laws affect the rate of crime.

While the potential of the Group Violence Initiative has been widely touted, that program also lacks the analytical expertise necessary to fully understand the scope and nature of the problem. Even so, GVI deserves enthusiastic support and warrants additional resources. The GVI aside, the city has routinely and robustly ignored almost any credible analysis offered.

The city has no one in its employ academically trained as a professional crime or policy analyst. So, any claim of "data driven policing or policy" is pure smoke. The administration has, however, continued to allow inexplicable and unnecessary police department promotions in the face of dwindling numbers.

The police themselves aren't to be blamed for some of this. Recruitment and retention have been persistent issues for a very long time. One can't fault young people for choosing a different way to make a living. Under ideal conditions in a relatively crime-free city, policing is a tough profession with high personal costs. In Pine Bluff with a 2023 homicide rate 11 times the national average the rigors of the job are multiplied.

Regarding the crime rate and other maladies, during the past decade Pine Bluff has earned the attention of the national media. In just the past three years, reports have dubbed Pine Bluff, "the murder capital of the US," "the worst city in America," "the most dangerous city in America," and "the most miserable city in America."

Apologists will say, "it's this way everywhere." With the full weight of solid, objective, empirical evidence, I can tell you: It is not. Crime rates are down in most of the country. Joblessness is down in most of the country.

While it is important to note that positive things have happened in this community over the last decade, most of the items listed by local leaders as signal achievements would have just occurred naturally with consistent good governance and informed public policy. It's great to credit successes like facility upgrades and infrastructure improvements, but let's not crow too loudly about those things while children are killing each other and poverty ravages the city. More to the point, if a local official tells you things in Pine Bluff are better now than they were a decade ago, you need to run from them because that is counterfactual in a selfishly dangerous way.

It's also important to discuss how some local candidates have positioned themselves with regard to divine authority. It's necessary for all elected officials to have a solid grounding in moral and ethical principles, but anyone who tries to associate their candidacy with the will of God should be viewed with deep suspicion. As Susan B. Anthony once wrote, "I distrust those people who know so well what God wants them to do, because I notice it always coincides with their own desires."

Finally, I won't tell you who to vote for, but I ask you to consider one question: If the people currently in charge had any real solutions, wouldn't things already be better? We've tried it their way long enough. It's time to elect people with formal training in public policy, who aren't tethered to dysfunctional traditions.

Matthew Pate has a doctorate in criminal justice, is a lecturer at the University at Albany and the author of three books on crime and public policy. He lives in Pine Bluff.

Upcoming Events