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Detroit officials, clergy confront no-snitch culture to fight crime

Detroit officials, clergy confront no-snitch culture to fight crime
Doug Guthrie / The Detroit News
Detroit –Clergy and civic groups have joined the city’s new leadership in calling for an end to youth violence — specifically targeting the no-snitch culture that says it’s better, and safer, to turn a blind eye to criminal acts.

But kids on the street are saying: Good luck.

“In this city, it’s come down to a combination of fear and I don’t care,” 15-year-old Antonio Bolden said on his way home from summer school at southwest Detroit’s Western International High School. “When it comes to the no-snitch thing, this city is too far gone.”

The no-snitch ethos is a code of conduct, popularized through music, T-shirts and a distrust of authority by those who have the least power. It is particularly acute in Detroit and helps account for one of the nation’s worst homicide closure rates of less than 40 percent.

Wayne County Prosecutor Kym Worthy has called it a serious obstacle to getting reliable witnesses in criminal cases. She complains that the unwillingness to testify has blocked prosecutions. Witnesses in pending cases have been intimidated and even killed, she said.

“One of the factors why the arrest and clearance rate is low is because of the no-snitching mentality,” Worthy said. “Without people telling what they know to law enforcement we would have anarchy in the streets.”

Some say that’s already a good description of Detroit.

“Truth is, that’s the only thing that keeps my neighborhood bonded. No one helps us. None of us trust the police or any part of this city’s government,” said Ninoshka Nieves, 17, of southwest Detroit. “There have been so many promises made that nobody trusts anyone in authority any more. When something happens, we won’t say a thing. That’s the way it is.”

Some legal experts argue that no-snitching references in pop culture are a legitimate backlash to a runaway law enforcement practice.

Prosecutors and police overburdened by criminal caseloads whittle down their numbers with a double-edged sword, trading lighter sentences and freedom for information. Without clear rules or public oversight, secretly brokered decisions are made without judge or jury about whose crimes get prosecuted and whose get traded away for damning testimony.

Other practices and policies reinforce the no-snitch credo. After all, cops don’t cross the “Blue Line” to tell on fellow officers. The U.S. military’s official policy for dealing with homosexuality is “Don’t ask. Don’t tell.” The Miranda constitutional right to remain silent suggests that anything suspects or witnesses say to police can and will be used against them.

Residents of the most needy, least educated, most crime-ridden neighborhoods throughout the nation have grown resentful about the revolving back doors of justice when they see wrongdoers released from custody because they traded away their sins to put someone else behind bars.

Experienced criminals appear untouchable, according to former Baltimore public defender Alexandra “Sasha” Natapoff, who now is a Loyola Marymount University law professor in Los Angeles.

“They want people to be witnesses for them, but then the police treat you like they don’t care,” said Devonte Green, 15, another Western International High School student. “I’d actually like to see more cops on patrol in the neighborhood because when they are around there’s less action. But they need to be people who care.”

“There ain’t no fixing it,” said Dejuan Thomas, 16. “I got stopped by the narcotics squad walking down the street when I was 15. I thought maybe I was in the wrong place at the wrong time or something, but they were asking me stuff like, ‘Do you fight?’ and they were trying to get me going. What’s with that? Who are you supposed to trust?”

The tension was evident in the aftermath of the recent shooting that wounded seven people at a bus stop after summer school classes let out at Cody Ninth Grade Academy. A teenager was arrested, but Worthy ordered his release because police failed to gather enough evidence to bring charges.

Last week, Mayor Dave Bing told residents, “If you give us information, we can round these people up.”

He and Worthy both asked for citizen outrage. At a rally near the site of the “Cody Nines” bus stop shootings, organizers unveiled their own catch phrase — “Don’t Snitch, Just Tell.”

But Tierra McCants, 16, who will be an 11th-grader at Cody High School this fall, said the problems that led to the shooting near her school stem from gang conflicts.

“It’s the gangs and the way the school district has consolidated things, putting kids from different schools together, (which) puts members from different gangs together. That’s a problem,” she said. “The gangs are in control of our schools.”

New Detroit Police Chief Warren Evans said he understands many won’t help his department until it changes its image by proving it wants to help residents. He acknowledged citizen complaints have gone unanswered; calls for help have been treated with indifference and disrespect.

A 911 emergency dispatcher — held criminally responsible after hanging up on a boy calling to report his mother had died — got her job back after an arbitrator ruled she was improperly fired.

“We need to improve our response,” Evans said. “It is the beginning of what we did not have before, the community buy-in. … When you get stonewalled, you don’t get a good feeling. If you all become cops, I have 750,000 cops. I can do a lot more than I can with 1,000.”

Nieves said Evans’ promise to improve police response would be a good first step.

“But it’s going to take a long time to undo this, to make people think they actually can help us,” the teenager said.

Bishop Edgar Vann II stood with 89 other members of the clergy at a press conference last week at Second Ebenezer Baptist Church to call for a volunteer brigade of men and women to patrol the hallways of Detroit’s schools, “to be the eyes and ears of authorities.” It was similar to plan announced three years ago and never implemented.

Worthy has wondered in a city rocked by political scandals and overwhelmed by violence, if residents can expect meaningful long-term commitment and follow-through.

“What is it going to take, a child shot … seven children shot?” she asked.

Evans vowed to reach for answers beyond the walls of his Police Department in an effort to break down the department’s fortress mentality. He said he will ask for help from his replacement as Wayne County sheriff. He stood with U.S. Attorney Terrence Berg, who pledged to help. He said he will cooperate with neighboring police departments.

Starting this fall, Detroit Public Schools students from kindergarten through grade 12 will get special instruction in conflict resolution, said Chief Academic Officer Barbara Byrd-Bennett. She said other districts throughout the nation also have made attempts at “un-teaching” the no-snitch culture.

“We have a culture that has taught the wrong things, so I’m confident we can un-teach those things and teach the right ways,” Byrd-Bennett said. “Los Angeles and San Francisco have programs. There are ways to undo this, and we need to take advantage of others’ experiences to do that.”

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