In many Baltimore neighborhoods, talking to the law has become a mortal sin, a dishonorable act punishable by social banishment—or worse. Prosecutors in the city can rattle off a litany of brutal retaliations: houses firebombed, witnesses and their relatives shot, contract hits on 10-year-olds. Witness intimidation, they say, badly hampers their ability to fight crime, and it affects nearly every murder case they try.
Prosecutors in most major U.S. cities tell similar stories. Two years ago in Philadelphia, a drug kingpin was convicted of witness intimidation after he was taped threatening to kill those who testified against him. Five relatives of one witness in the case had already died, in a house fire that prosecutors believe was the drug lord’s doing. Last year in San Francisco, two gang members beat a murder rap after the state’s star witness turned up dead. Several years ago in Denver, a key homicide witness was sexually assaulted in what prosecutors believe was a “contract” attack designed to frighten him out of testifying.
Police and prosecutors have been contending with reluctant witnesses for decades. But according to law-enforcement experts, the problem is getting dramatically worse, and is reflected in falling arrest and conviction rates for violent crimes. In cities with populations between half a million (for example, Tucson) and a million (Detroit), the proportion of violent crimes cleared by an arrest dropped from about 45 percent in the late 1990s to less than 35 percent in 2005, according to the FBI. Conviction rates have similarly dropped. At the same time, crime has spiked. Murder rates have risen more or less steadily since 2000. Last December, the FBI voiced concern over a jump in violent crime, which in 2005 showed its biggest increase in more than a decade.
The reasons for witnesses’ reluctance appear to be changing and becoming more complex, with the police confronting a new cultural phenomenon: the spread of the gangland code of silence, or omerta, from organized crime to the population at large. Those who cooperate with the police are labeled “snitches” or “rats”—terms once applied only to jailhouse informants or criminals who turned state’s evidence, but now used for “civilian” witnesses as well. This is particularly true in the inner cities, where gangsta culture has been romanticized through rap music and other forms of entertainment, and where the motto “Stop snitching,” expounded in hip-hop lyrics and emblazoned on caps and T-shirts, has become a creed
From the NY Times article, in a story about the murder of a little girl:
Indeed, at least 20 people were within sight of the gunfight among well-known members of the Sex Money Murder subset of the Bloods gang 15 months ago, but the case remains unsolved because not a single one will testify or even describe what they saw to investigators. The witnesses include Vera Lee, Tajahnique’s grandmother, who declined to be interviewed for this article. People who have spoken to her about the shooting said she would not talk to the police for fear she would “have to move out of the country.”
Trenton’s mayor, Douglas H. Palmer, who was in the final weeks of a heated re-election campaign, accompanied Tajahnique’s family to court for the bail hearing, vowing to rid the city of guns and gangs.
But the case fell apart quickly. The police said that the lone witness had offered his information in an attempt to win leniency on an unrelated gun charge, and when detectives tried to corroborate his story they found he had lied about where he was during the shooting — and about his own name. Three weeks after the arrest, prosecutors released the two men.
“People don’t want to talk,” said a rap artist known as The Big Ooh who walks the neighborhood surrounded by an entourage. “Because they don’t want to take a bullet.”
In recent interviews, many who were asked about what they saw that afternoon mentioned Kendra DeGrasse, a Trenton woman who had planned to testify against her ex-boyfriend regarding a 2001 shootout with the police. Then in 2003 she received a letter from prison.
“If you come to court Monday to testify against me, it’s over for me as well as you and your son (straight like that),” read the letter, which handwriting experts attributed to the ex-boyfriend. “I am not afraid to die, what about you?”
Ms. DeGrasse recanted. Two years later, she was killed, an unsolved shooting the police call retaliatory.
Police and city officials around the country are struggling over what to do about the problem, which has no easy solution. There are some studies of the problem that have been done, and they make recommendations for what to do about it, but unfortunately the only way to really reduce the extent of the problem is to weaken the culture of intimidation that's grown out of the fear and poverty of gang-infested neighborhoods, and that's a problem beyond what police alone can address.