Tuesday, August 30, 2011

Detroit Breakdown, Motor City Shakedown

by Donna Pendergast

Last week Detroit Mayor Dave Bing issued a "call to action." Joining other local, state and federal officials Bing urged Detroit residents to take a place on the front lines of crime fighting efforts by acting as the eyes and ears of police to combat murder and gun crimes. "We've had enough," Bing said. "We as a community have to be upset. Everyone is tired of what has been happening in the city and it's time for it to stop."

In recent weeks Detroit's murder and gun rate have spiraled out of control with a sharp spike in homicides and several 24-hour spans that saw multiple persons wounded and killed by violence in the city. As of last Friday Detroit has recorded 230 homicides compared with 190 homicides at the same time last year. "We have to be upset. We have to be outraged at some of the things going on," Bing said.

Beginning September 1st Detroit Police Chief Ralph Godbee has instituted Operation Inside Out: Night Angels which requires officers assigned to desk jobs to work eight hours each week in high crime areas of the city. This will put 40-50 additional officers on the street at any given time. But will these efforts to move officers from desk duty to patrol make a difference? Even Bing recognizes that police work alone cannot solve a problem as pervasive as violence in Detroit. "Another thousand officers are not going to stop the crimes that go on," said Bing. "I am appalled as I read every morning, on a 24-hour basis, the crimes that are perpetrated by so many of our young people and are gun related."

So what is the answer to curbing Detroit's downward spiral? As the former Homicide Principal Attorney in the prosecutors office covering the city of Detroit, time and time again I have witnessed the death and destruction that goes hand in hand with gun violence. Yet, taking guns off of the street will not address a problem that goes much deeper. Perhaps more important is addressing the culture of turning a blind eye and refusing to turn in those who perpetrate heinous crimes against family, friends, neighbors and the community.

Witnesses who refuse to cooperate are a big problem not only in Detroit, but in communities across the nation. The "Don't Snitch" street code is killing neighborhoods. It is extremely difficult for the police and prosecutors to make cases without cooperating witnesses. Plain and simple an "anti-snitch" culture lets killers walk the street because people are too intimidated, frightened or reluctant to disclose what they saw. This widespread refusal to cooperate further perpetuates the cycle of allowing violent predators to think that they are unstoppable and further empowering them to commit more violent acts without fear of reprisal.

The reasons behind the "Don't Snitch" ethos are varied. Witnesses keep silent for fear of their lives. Many of the neighborhoods where these crimes occur are inter-generational neighborhoods. People know each other, they know each others' families and they know where they live. The problem is complicated by a misplaced loyalty to community that fails to recognize the honor of opposing crime, and weak bonds between the police and the communities they serve.

The problem has become much worse in the aftermath of the 2004 homemade DVD Stop Fuc****Snitching created by Rodney Bethea. This DVD became a national sensation with it's anti-cooperation subversive message that threatens "rats," "bitches," and "snitches" with violent retribution. In the video men purporting to be drug dealers threaten violence against anyone who cooperates with authorities by telling what they know about criminal activities. A particular target singled out for contempt were individuals who informed on others to get a lighter sentence for their own crimes.

As the DVD gained a national audience tee shirts began to appear around the country carrying the Stop Snitchin message and further driving home the message that all forms of cooperation with the police should cease. Shirts, bumper stickers, CD's and DVD's perpetuating the Stop Snitchin message became commonplace across the country and rappers helped spread the message with lyrics that shunned the idea of ratting on your friend or local thug.

These shirts were once widely available in gas stations and stores in urban communities but after public backlash many retailers pulled them from their shelves. They can still be found online. The Internet carries a vast array of paraphernalia carrying the Stop Snitchin message. The most common version of the Stop Snitchin tee shirt carries a stop sign with the message Stop Snitchin and bullet holes implying deadly harm to those who violate this creed. Another version of the shirt carries the message "Snitches are a dying breed" Yet another version of the shirt carries a picture of a rat in a circle with a line through it.

Although police and Prosecutors have been coping with reluctant witnesses for decades the metastasis of this omerta sort of code of silence from organized crime to social norm has become epidemic and has had a serious impact on law enforcement efforts. As this urban phenomenon has taken root in the neighborhoods of cities like Detroit, police and prosecutors have had to deal with the dilemma of confronting witnesses who are witnesses to a crime, addressing their fears of retribution and now convincing them that there is no dishonor in helping to right a community wrong.

So how do police and prosecutors gain community trust and counteract the Stop Snitchin message in neighborhoods that are being torn apart by senseless violence? How do we change attitudes that equate cooperation with authorities with weakness and dishonor? What can community leaders do to change attitudes that have become social norms in many communities that can least afford to perpetuate this sort of non-cooperation with authorities?

Community mobilization is necessary to counteract the message that turning in violent perpetrators is wrong. Community leaders must place pressure on retailers to stop spreading the Stop Snitchin message through shirts and other paraphernalia. A positive message must be spread through churches and other community organizations that emphasizes community cooperation and empowerment through standing together and standing up against crime. And the police must develop and nurture community relations to build bonds that foster cooperation between neighborhoods and those entrusted to protect them.

Ralph Godbee has it right, we really do need the citizens to be the eyes and ears of the police. It's the only way that Detroit has a chance.

*photo credit: brookewill

Statements in this post are my own and are not intended to reflect the views, opinion or position of the Michigan Attorney General or the Michigan Department of Attorney General.


Anonymous said...

Good article putting a finger on a critical point. Ultimately the responsibility for whether or not a certain area is nice to live in or a haven for violence and crime lies with the residents. The police can do little without cooperation.

In the specific case of Detroit though part of the responsibility for the level of crime must land on the table of certain irresponsible industry leaders and politicians. You cannot effectuate such a massive recession in a city and not expect crime to rise dramatically.

A Voice of Sanity said...

"Perhaps more important is addressing the culture of turning a blind eye and refusing to turn in those who perpetrate heinous crimes against family, friends, neighbors and the community."

Blah, blah, blah. When the police are seen as just another gang of violent, corrupt criminals doing as they wish BUT immune from prosecution the system breaks down. If you wade your way through Lawrence Schiller's tome on JonBenet Ramsey, you see the same sort of disdain by the Boulder police for community interaction that leads to this sort of rejection. Yes, the gangs are exploiting the situation but the police fostered it. As long as the police have their "thin blue line" mentality this sort of disdain will grow.

Don't blame "certain irresponsible industry leaders and politicians" for this, blame the police and their unions for not insisting on complete professionalism from all members.

Eye-of -the-storm said...

Skip blaming the police.They reflect the underlying structure going a long way back. The whole of Detroit has a history of unethical criminal foundation from it's politicans, industry leaders, past mayors. Elements of tidied up organised crime haven't gone yet. All that's happened the wilder youth have found their place arrogantly. Why would anyone snitch in a shaky justice system where a Casey Anthony goes free -just one example- the accused has all the rights, a jury pool may be specifically selected idiots by a defense teams professional jury selector and few chances the person one risked being a witness against convicted and goes free. Or you die before you even reach court to witness. Furthermore, the potential witnesses may be nice persons, but very likely not legally pure so facing their flaws put under the spotlight by the defence practioners when attempting to discredit them. Halve the murder rate by restricting the possesion and availability of fire arms, imposing a mandatory sentence of ten years for having such in possesion or providing such to anyone under 25yo. Additionally allow police to shoot on sight anyone at or running from a crime reasonably believed to have or just had a firearm. Worry about other charges after the ten year sentence.
Firearms are a serious matter and it's now known full adult brain maturity is not reached before 25yo and therefore too risky if not being trained in the police or armed forces.