Sunday, December 30, 2007

Witness Intimidation: An Urban Crisis

What would it take for inner-city crime witnesses to come forward to the police with information about a crime?

The dearth of witness cooperation with the police - the taboo of "snitching" - is emerging as one of the biggest impediments to more effective responses to the hopelessness of urban violence and social disorganization.

This New York Times article has more on the problem:

When her 16-year-old son was shot dead on a street corner here in June, Rosalynn Glasco became the latest mother left to search for justice in a world without witnesses — where the stigma of being seen as a snitch or the fear of retaliation prevents many from testifying about even the worst crimes.

But Ms. Glasco held out some hope, all the same. Determined not to let her son’s killer go unpunished, she urged her daughter and other relatives to work the grapevine in the neighborhood where he was killed, Whitman Park, searching for evidence, and maybe somebody willing to share it.

Discovering nothing, she pressed on.

Ms. Glasco’s extended family put together fliers and started assembling a Web site to publicize a reward. She gathered her life savings and set the figure for information at $5,000. She delayed posting it because Camden detectives asked her to wait, saying they had promising leads in the investigation.

The leads fizzled; a trip to see the mayor produced more promises of effort, but no arrests. The murder of Ms. Glasco’s son, Salahuddin Igwe — shot at 5 a.m. as he walked home from a party — remains unsolved.

Ms. Glasco is disappointed. She is also realistic. If the tables were turned, she admits, and if another mother were at her doorstep asking for information, she is not sure she would help, either.

“Snitching, telling on people, isn’t something that I personally would involve myself with,” she said in an interview last week. “People don’t want to talk to you if they think you’re a snitch. If they were your friends, they’re not your friends anymore. You’re left totally all alone.”

As the most violent neighborhood in one of the nation’s most dangerous cities, the Whitman Park section of Camden is on the front lines of the struggle with witness intimidation. An array of powerful forces converge here to discourage people from cooperating with the investigation of crimes — crimes committed against their own homes, their own neighbors, their own children.

Drugs are sold openly from street corners and abandoned row houses. Gunfire is a neighborhood soundtrack. And the competing gangs that control Whitman Park have made it clear that the price for defying them is death. Within blocks of the street where Ms. Glasco’s son was killed, six people were murdered in less than a year.

Yet many residents of Whitman Park say their reluctance to help investigators is based on more than just fear of gang retaliation. It is also a consequence of their deep distrust of the local police and prosecutors and politicians. Like residents of many other struggling, predominantly black and Hispanic neighborhoods across the country, people here complain that racial profiling, police corruption and the excesses of the war on drugs have made them suspicious of virtually any arm of government.

It might be considered difficult - certainly among residents of secure, suburban neighborhoods, protected by affluence and quick links to ADT - to understand why people won't come forward to help law enforcement. Or maybe not. The code on the street's the most powerful form of social control, and frankly, when local armed mobs have more power than the neighborhood police department, it makes sense to stay silent.

Still, until we see change - until there's some kind of "take back the night" movement at the base of the violence - it will be impossible for these communities to be free from the terror.

I've thought much about witness intimidation. When 7-year-old Tajahnique Lee was shot in the face last summer in New Jersey no one came forward to finger her killers - that is, not one of the roughly twenty people right there at the scene who witnessed the shooting!

The phenomenon of witness intimidation is completely debilitating for African-American political and economic progress.

Juan Williams dicussed the crisis at length in his book, Enough. Williams highlights the local danger and fear of "the enemy within." Here's a disturbing section from the book:

In October 2002 the living hell caused by crime in the black community burst into flames in Baltimore.

A black mother of five testified against a Northest Baltimore drug dealer. The next day her row house was fire-bombed. She managed to put out the flames that time. Two weeks later, at 2:00am as the family slept, the house was set on fire again. This time the drug dealer broke open the front door and took care in splashing gasoline on the lone staircase that provided exit for people asleep in the second- and third-floor bedrooms. Angela Dawson, the thirty-six year-old mother, and her five children, aged nine to fourteen, burned to death. Her husband, Carnell, forty-three, jumped from a second-story window. He had burns over most of his body and died a few days later. On that chilling night, as she struggled against the smoke and heat, the mother's cries could be heard over the crackle of the flames on East Preston Street. "God, please help me," screamed Angela Dawson. "Help me get my children out."

Before she was silenced, Dawson made thirty-six calls to the police, from late-July until her death, to complain about the drug dealers who operated freely on the street in front of her house. About a month before she was killed, one of the the dealers had scrawled BITCH on the front wall of her house. As she was scrubbing away the graffiti, a young man who lived across the street, and eighteen-year old, appeared and boldly said he had written the word there, told her to leave it alone, and then hit her.

Williams goes on to recount that police apprehended the murderer, Darryl Brooks, twenty-one, who was later sentenced to life in prison without parole. The tragedy of Angela Dawson is a tragedy for the entire black community, however. The local papers reported on the gangland taboo against "snitching."

Williams quotes the Baltimore Sun, which reported that:

Families...are often unwilling to join the battle against crime because it would mean turning in a child, grandchild, cousin, or uncle....Residents still may have to coexist with neighbors who might be criminals.It'd be hard to find a more compelling theme of discussion at a major civil rights forum, but the Democrats and delegates to the meeting missed the opportunity.

Which way forward?

Certainly continued efforts at strong law enforcement and communty-based policing are necessary. But until black culture shifts toward privileging citizenship and responsibility over social neglect and chaos - there can be little hope for the success of more forceful public policies, at least for those social welfare approaches falling outside of aggressive anti-crime initiatives.