Speak No Evil
What we have in this city is a failure to communicate.
Back in June, the Kansas City, Missouri, Police Department predicted that this year’s murder tally would top 100. The streets have held up their end of the bargain.
As the number of homicides creeps toward 90, we’ve heard plenty of inane explanations for the violence. Kansas City Star columnist Steve Penn was satisfied that “plain old anger” precipitated many of the killings. Larger Star articles have quoted police saying that shootings arise from “stupid stuff.” The violence has been blamed on heat, joblessness and drug sales. Kansas City, Missouri, School District Superintendent Bernard Taylor blamed it on a decrease in “civility.”
But one basic reality strangles efforts to actually stop the violence: The citizens who are most at risk are also the least willing to cooperate with police.
In the neighborhoods that have suffered the most — blocks of the central city that are populated primarily by African-Americans — people are angry over the number of unsolved crimes. But witnesses don’t want to say what they’ve seen, even if doing so might help put a killer behind bars.
“If you’re a victim and you’re not willing to tell us who you think the suspect is, there’s absolutely nothing we can do to solve that case,” says Capt. Vince Cannon, commander of the Kansas City Police Department’s Homicide Squad. “If they’re not willing, the case is closed as far as we’re concerned. There is no evidence in the world we can gather to take that case to court.”
Cannon says he recently spoke with a young assault victim who refused to give up the name of his attacker. Once the police were finished questioning the kid, Cannon says, he heard the father congratulate his son for not snitching.
A snitch, it seems, is the worst thing you can be.
It used to be that a snitch was someone who coughed up information on his friends in order to get himself out of trouble. But the definition has broadened. Now it applies to anyone who cooperates with police, under any circumstances.
Assistant Jackson County Prosecutor Byron Woehlecke says he just handled a case in which a kid hit in a drive-by shooting was advised by his mother not to cooperate with the investigation.
Alonzo Washington — the activist credited with helping solve the Precious Doe-Erica Green case — can understand young people’s reluctance to seek police protection. To a black kid on the block, police are known only as the ones who want to arrest you.
“Most people who call and report stuff are older,” Washington says. “Even when younger people turn themselves in, it’s an older person who convinced them to do so. There’s so much violence in youth culture, so much fear — ‘What if I get shot, if they find out?’ Revenge is rare, but you see it more with the new breed of young thug-life characters. There’s a whole genre of rap that promotes it. I’m not blaming the recording and entertainment industry, but it’s that culture — I’m hard, callous, I don’t care.”
Take it from rapper Trick Daddy, whose words blasted from car stereos all summer and whose latest album features a song called “Gangsta Livin,'” which contains the lyrics You see, ’cause snitches get stitches/And there ain’t that much of a difference between tellin’ and snitchin’.
Washington doesn’t exactly have a high opinion of the cops in this town; he’s still bitter over the fact that the tipster whose information solved the Erica Green murder had to call the KCPD dozens of times before police paid attention.
But, he says, “It’s an unspoken honor not to snitch? It’s dishonorable to watch your people die over and over and do nothing.”
What he and the families of homicide victims are asking for, then, are a few good snitches.
Someone needed to snitch on behalf of Valentina Smith.
The 16-year-old Central High School student was killed on April 11, 2004, when a stray bullet blew off the back of her head.
She was at a birthday party with roughly 60 other people at 4031 South Benton. According to police records, an argument took place inside the party, and Thomas “Kuddy” Clegg, 21, was kicked out. According to police records, when he left he said, “I’ve got something for you.” Then he returned with an automatic rifle and fired numerous rounds at the house. A partygoer told police he’d heard Clegg say “They got me fucked up” before he drove off.
Valentina, in the line of fire, was found dead in the front yard next-door.
That night, detective Dan Phillips ordered a bus to 40th Street and South Benton. He picked up nearly 40 people who remained at the scene and drove them to the station for questioning.
Phillips called in as many detectives as he could round up to interview the bused-in witnesses. Some of the partygoers just sat silently. Some asked whether they were going to have to testify later in court if they gave a statement now. Others plain lied.
Not one of those 40 people had seen a thing.
The witnesses were a young crowd, Phillips tells the Pitch. “It’s truly sad that this could happen. A 16-year-old girl, with no provocation, was killed in the middle of some foolishness, and no one wants to come forward…. Some people would rather live on the streets with a murderer than take the steps to see that they don’t.”
Police picked up Clegg a few days after the shooting. Phillips spent more than a year collecting evidence and re-interviewing people in the case. (The file contains more than 1,000 pages.) Jackson County Prosecutor Mark Jones, who filed the charges, says that when police interviewed Clegg, he admitted being at the scene but denied being the shooter. He also implied that he had friends on the outside who could be a threat to witnesses.
One of Clegg’s friends told police that if they subpoenaed him, he’d deny telling them anything. “People are savvy,” Jones says. “They understand that if they cooperate, they’re going to have to testify, and if they won’t, they’ll get subpoenaed.”
Clegg was supposed to be tried in August. But to no one’s surprise, the key witnesses did not show up. A new trial is set for January. If prosecutors have difficulty obtaining witness testimony, the case could be dismissed, or Clegg could plead to a lesser offense, such as involuntary manslaughter.
The Pitch was unable to reach Valentina’s mother. But her aunt, Gloria Smith, says her violent death wasn’t the first the family has suffered. One of Valentina’s cousins was shot and killed in 1995. “It didn’t happen in the same way as Valentina, but he was shot up bad, no one came forward and the suspect was back out on the street later,” Smith says. “This is, like, just a repeat.”
Smith says she’s angry at the people who won’t come forward in Valentina’s killing. “A whole houseful of people — someone had to have seen what happened. Her boyfriend at the time was supposed to have known something, even. At her funeral, there were 500 people there. How does a 16-year-old girl know 500 people? For her to be so popular, almost like a celebrity, you’d think someone would come forward with concern in their heart so that someone could be punished for what they done.”
More than a year after the shooting, a Pitch reporter knocks on doors around 40th Street and South Benton, where Valentina Smith died. Many of the homes are vacant; a couple of them are being rehabbed to be sold. On the south end of the block, houses are owner-occupied and well-maintained; at the north end, the houses are dilapidated rentals.
An older man opens the door at one house and starts to say that the murder happened down the block, farther north. He’s corrected by a kid who can’t be older than 12, who comes outside to say that he is the man’s nephew, and his uncle didn’t live at the house in April 2004. “She died right in our front yard,” the kid says of Valentina.
Police have had trouble finding witnesses, the reporter begins — but at the word police, the boy turns and disappears inside the house.
Tannashian Matthews remembers the night of the shooting. She lives in a corner house at the run-down end of South Benton. She’s 30 years old; her six daughters, one brother, and her brother’s fiancée all sleep on mattresses in the living room of her bare but sturdy little house.
She doesn’t pay rent because her landlord is a friend; that bit of fortune is what keeps her here.
The shooting happened around 1 a.m., Matthews recalls. One of her nieces had gone to the birthday party but had come back to the house, reporting that there were a lot of older people there and that a lot of smoking, drinking and cussing were going on. Earlier that day, the girl who was turning 18 and having the party — Matthews says her name was Keisha — stopped by and borrowed CDs by R. Kelly and Destiny’s Child. “You’d think it was going to be a nice party,” Matthews says.
That night, she suddenly heard yelling: “Let’s go, they’re getting a gun, run, run!” She heard dozens of shots. “I can remember that night like it was yesterday,” Matthews says. “What hurt me most was, I was sitting on the porch, and you could see the family down the block, crying. You see everybody running back down the street this way, and for that child’s body to be lying in the street, we didn’t really know whether she was dead or not, you know, and it seemed like it took the police forever to get here.”
She says she stayed awake on the porch until four in the morning. “I went in five minutes after because the detectives were coming around knocking on doors. Everybody went inside. They didn’t want to be part of that. That’s how it is around here. Part of the reason for me was because I really didn’t know nothing. I just saw people running away from the scene.”
Matthews teaches her own children to keep their mouths shut, regardless of what they see. Her oldest daughter saw a man shot next-door. “She walked out of the house and saw the man running through the driveway,” Matthews says. “She was like, ‘Mama, we heard a pow-pow-pow-pow-pow, and then we seen a man running. He was bleeding.’ And I was like, ‘Amanda, shut up, you don’t know nothing. ‘Cause you can get in trouble.’ I tell them all the time, ‘You don’t know nothing. Y’all ain’t seen nothing. You know, keep your mouth closed. Because you’re actually scared over here.'”
She learned not to snitch after seeing a boy get shot in front of her old house, at 38th Street and Olive. She says she heard a man’s voice tell her best friend, who was with her at the time, “If y’all tell anything, I’m coming back and shooting up y’all house.
“Ever since then, we’re really afraid,” she says. “Some nights, if I could just go somewhere else instead of being here, you know, I would do it. But I have nowhere else to go.”
In this neighborhood, many residents don’t trust the police to help them.
Often, the police are the enemy.
Matthews says she was arrested after a traffic stop when she took too long to produce her insurance card for the officers. Her brother was shot in the leg, from a moving car, at random, but says the police who stopped to help him accused him of being part of a drug deal gone bad. Her niece was shot in the arm outside a liquor store on 45th Street, but when help took too long to arrive, Matthews drove her to St. Luke’s herself. There, she says, the police scolded them for not remaining at the scene.
Matthews calls her friend Ron McMillan when she needs a ride or some words of encouragement. McMillan works at MoveUp, an agency whose mission is to reduce violence and drug and alcohol abuse in urban neighborhoods. He shows up at the sites of fresh homicides and often works on behalf of the families of crime victims.
His experience at crime scenes has given him insight into how police treat people on the east side. “Sometimes I ride up and boom, someone just got shot and it turns into a crime-scene investigation,” he says. “And how they handle the people is what initially alienates folk. All the sudden they’re taping everything off. You can’t move. ‘Can I … ?’ Shaddup, get in the house. ‘Can I get my car?’ Naw. You know, This is a crime scene and you can’t violate it. It sets up the us-against-you right away. You stay behind that yellow line. Go beyond that yellow line again, I’m locking you up. That hurts. That stops any type of dialogue.”
Police have legitimate reasons for being curt with onlookers at murder scenes. But McMillan’s complaint is echoed by numerous people the Pitch interviewed for this story. Matthews complains that the cops are there all the time — except when you need them. She liked two officers, partners named Brian James and Patrick Byrd. She says she had their cell-phone numbers, trusted them, could call them and get them to come. But she hasn’t seem them lately. “And now that they’re not over here, it’s like the officers that are here really don’t care.”
James and Byrd, of KCPD’s East Patrol, tell the Pitch that they were bogged down in administrative duties for a while but are back patrolling the neighborhood.
On a weekday afternoon, the two community-outreach officers pull their battered cruiser to a stop at a house where four black kids are hanging out on the porch. It’s a regular stop for them; this time, the officers see someone named Hernandez — they call him a “little killer” — and they want to talk to him. But before James can get out of the vehicle, one of the kids is in the house already.
“What’d your boy run in the house for?” James says with a wry smile. “He didn’t have to run.” He turns to go, but then spots a yellow box of plastic sandwich bags in the yard nearby. It obviously isn’t intended for lunch. “Oh, no, look at this shit.”
A woman comes out of the house, angrily telling James he can’t come into the yard, but he advances anyway, teasing, “What? I can’t hear you.” He talks with the woman for several minutes before coming back to the car.
Someone calls from the porch, “We hope y’all get promoted and stop messing with us.”
“We love you!” James yells back.
“Don’t get shot!” Byrd calls out the cruiser window before they drive away.
James says the woman told him that his finding sandwich bags didn’t mean anything.
Byrd turns the wrong way down a one-way street. “These houses we’re going by and messing with, they’re drug houses,” James says. “I don’t want you thinking we’re being straight pricks.”
They say that they’ve pulled many guns and drugs out of the house where Hernandez stays, made many arrests. If people saw the whole picture, they say, it would make more sense.
Despite the attitude they’ve displayed with the kids on the porch, it’s clear that Byrd and James care about the people in these neighborhoods. But for residents here, ride-alongs happen only when they’re under arrest. Sometimes people just take care of the police work themselves.
On September 9, 30-year-old Reginald Rivers became Kansas City’s 80th homicide of 2005, shot in the back in a park at 10th Street and Harrison that’s known for its drug activity.
Rivers had five sisters. The day after their brother’s murder, the women scoured the park themselves, talking to people who had seen the shooting and shaking down their own information. People were initially skittish and ran from them, but some agreed to meet up and share information a couple of blocks away, out of sight of the park. One of Rivers’ older sisters, Sarah Robinson, tells the Pitch that they took over the job of crime solving because they didn’t fully trust the police to do it right.
“It depends on their approach,” Robinson says of the cops. “It’s how you walk through. Everyone knows you’re the police, so if I come say something to you, other people are going to see that. Then they [those who spoke] are afraid of what happens when they get back on the streets. I know there are witness lines to call, but I’m not confident that, from what I’ve seen, it stays as confidential as it portrays itself.”
MoveUp’s McMillan says people will talk to one another at crime scenes before they’ll talk to the police. The word on the street becomes as good as fact, and sometimes people will use that to settle matters themselves.
At prayer vigils, citizens curse the killers and criticize the cops. Rarely does anyone blame the people who know things but keep silent.
Instead, the candlelit, prayerful gatherings that may seem futile to an outsider can serve as an ad hoc courtroom.
“There was one very high-profile case where the family wanted to go and retaliate,” says Octavia Southall of the Gatekeepers, a new group of women who have organized to try to bring relief to the families of homicide victims while also gathering information to help police solve crimes. Southall says family members thought they knew who killed their relative and had told the police, but they didn’t think that the police were acting on their information. At this particular funeral, Southall says, “It took awhile, maybe an hour and a half, to get them calmed down and to see the rationale, or the irrationale, behind what they were going to do…. I took the two more vocal ones in the group aside, and I asked them, ‘What would you solve if you do that? If you go kill these guys, then what? There’s another murder, another family in pain. Now you’ve got to watch your back — you’re running, you’ll be in prison. It’s not going to bring so-and-so back, so what’s the point?'”
Admittedly, Southall doesn’t know whether that strategy worked. “Now, if anything happened after that night, I’m not sure,” she says. “I don’t think it has. I haven’t heard anything. But we got them to be calm at that time.”
At the Metropolitan Missionary Baptist Church at Linwood Boulevard and Prospect Avenue, the Rev. Wallace Hartsfield is trying to make use of that street network of communication. Earlier this summer, when Kansas City had endured only a handful of its 88 (as of press time) homicides, Hartsfield pulled what community members termed “a Farrakhan.” At the end of a march against violence, which started at 39th Street and ended at the Linwood Shopping Center on Prospect, he asked the men of his community to stand up, signaling their readiness to improve their neighborhoods. It was the beginning of an effort to help the police in ways regular folks won’t.
McMillan was there. “He said that we’ve got to start on our own block. ‘Do you beat your wife? Is there violence in your house? OK, there’s not? Well, can you spread that kind of information? Can you be a peacekeeper? Can you keep things calm on your block?’ That’s where we’re starting from.”
The men who stood have formed a group called the Peacekeepers, the male counterpart to the Gatekeepers. The Peacekeepers are still working to define their mission and their strategy; it’s too soon to know whether the effort will work.
“We’re still just babies figuring out how to take the 100 or so men who responded and turn that into a force that is efficient enough to go out there and build relationships and possibly do some intervention, conflict resolution, to cool things down,” McMillan says.
Another member of the Peacekeepers, Mark Porter, earned his activist credentials when he started a group called the 100 Men of Blue Hills, which seeks to shut down drug houses in that neighborhood. He’s been known to stand in front of known drug houses with a bullhorn, telling the occupants to move their trade elsewhere. As a Peacekeeper, he plans a lower-profile approach: He wants the men of his group to act as go-betweens, transmitting information from witnesses to police, while keeping informants’ identities secret.
But that may be even riskier for Porter’s witnesses, says Denise St. Omer of the community-justice unit of the Jackson County Prosecutor’s Office. “Mark [Porter] will unfortunately know that person, so he may find himself in an uncomfortable position. Someone could subpoena him, and a defense attorney can cross-examine him, and you have to talk or go to jail.”
Another activist who has earned some attention for his anti-violence efforts over the past few months is Ossco Bolton, a former gang member. Bolton now runs a program for high school students called POSSE (Peers Organized to Support Student Excellence), through which he lavishes attention on sullen, trouble-bound kids who remind Bolton of his old self.
Bolton points out that people are aware of how the criminal-justice system works. They know that if they say something valuable to the prosecution of an individual, their name becomes part of the public record. After all, defendants have the right to know who their accusers are.
“Once you know who your accuser is, that’s nothing but a phone call to their family to say, ‘Man, it was little Johnny,'” Bolton says. “That’s not to say that anything’s going to happen to him, except for the fact that now his name is going to be out there.”
Bolton says the snitch code is ingrained. “Most of it is just a cultural thing, where people in the neighborhood are just taught, you know, you just don’t talk,” he says. “It’s nothing the police did, per se. It started with the people out there who was raised like, sometimes your uncles and your cousins are in a lot of stuff, and you just don’t run your mouth. And it even goes deeper than that. A lot of times, our parents teach us that, and it doesn’t mean don’t talk to the police. It just meant you don’t run your mouth.”
In fact, the code of silence may have historical origins.
Donald Matthews, Ph.D., the director of the University of Missouri-Kansas City’s Black Studies Program, says that African-Americans’ disdain for informants dates back at least to the Jim Crow era in the South.
“There is a history of slaves telling on each other,” Matthews says. “Plantation masters would encourage slaves to tell about someone doing something bad, like stealing. That’s what the master wants you to do, to tell on your brothers and sisters.”
Another scholar of African-American culture, Mark Anthony Neal, a professor at Duke University, says, “I think in the ‘hood, also, the sense of unwillingness to snitch isn’t just about living in the ghetto. They see it more broadly in American society. They see the [Bush] administration closing ranks around the Iraq war, or they see police officers keep their own code of silence. They see other institutions doing the same kind of practices, and thus, if it is of value to those institutions, why not do it to protect their own family members?”
Proof of that is on the wall back at Hartsfield’s church. There, in a Sunday school classroom, hangs a piece of butcher paper with the rules of the classroom written on it in pink and purple.
“Be respectful,” it commands.
“No fighting. No feet in the chair.”
Rule number 11: “No snitching.”
If the rule against snitching makes it hard to solve cases now, what happens when it becomes a pop-culture movement?
Denver Nuggets star Carmelo Anthony — whose baby-blue-and-gold jersey is in fashion all over Kansas City — appeared in a low-budget video called Stop Fucking Snitching, Volume 1, shot in his hometown of Baltimore.
According to an Associated Press article posted on ESPN.com, the video basically serves as a platform for anti-witness rants on the streets of west Baltimore; the rat-hating sentiment is particularly directed toward a former drug kingpin there named Tyree Stewart, who is cooperating with authorities.
Stop Fucking Snitching, Volume 1 inspired posts on ESPN.com’s message boards that echo the dialogue of the video itself. A typical reaction, from someone calling himself GxUnitx: “If you snitch, you are a lil punk b!tch and should be shot in the f*cken [sic] head. If I ever see anything, I wouldn’t tell a damn thing because it’s not my job to catch these bad guys, it’s the government and police [sic] job to catch the bad guys, they are the ones getting paid for it so they should do there [sic] damn jobs. I don’t see the government or the police doing my job so why the f*ck should I do the cops [sic] job. Plain and simple, you snitch, you should get shot in the head.”
Since the DVD began circulating last November, “Stop Snitchin'” T-shirts have popped up in malls and at stores that carry clothes catering to urban youth and hip-hop culture. Some feature a picture of C-Murder, a rapper who released his last album from a Baton Rouge, Louisiana, prison while serving a life sentence for second-degree murder. Other shirts show a stop sign with the word “Snitchin'” on it. Some depict rats viewed through the crosshairs of a rifle scope.
In other cities, the shirts have angered law enforcement officials, ministers and families of homicide victims.
Now the message has hit Kansas City. On September 9, a 27-year-old Kansas City record producer named Hyrum Bayan showed up at Russell Simmons’ “Get Your Money Right” hip-hop summit at Bartle Hall wearing a Stop Snitchin’ shirt.
He knows it’s not right to protect a killer, but not being a bitch is more important.
“The whole stop-snitchin’ thing is saying, ‘Be a man. Stand up and take your own blame for the things you did, but don’t tell on anybody else,'” Bayan tells the Pitch.
He says some of this summer’s murders were in retaliation for snitching. People have found their hustle, and if it’s drugs or something illegal, they’re going to require silence and obedience to defend their way of getting by. “There are people in certain dealings, feeding other people, not really hurting anybody, and if someone snitches on one of them, then other people aren’t getting fed. That makes them mad, and that’s why all these people are getting killed.”
Bayan’s shirt says “Stop Snitchin'” in Army-green camouflage letters. Some of his friends have shown up at Bartle Hall wearing the stop-sign version. They’re members of a rap collective called Money Block Entertainment.
Shady Pacino, whose real name is Ja’Van Nurse, makes Stop Snitchin’ shirts himself. He shops for plain T-shirts at Hobby Lobby and makes personalized prints for friends and family, using a digital photo of someone who’s locked up on the back and a “Stop Snitchin'” pattern on the front. Nurse says the message is aimed at drug dealers who snitch on their higher-ups out of envy or as a career move to control a bigger share of the business.
“If someone killed my mom or my father, I hope to hell they tell somebody something,” Nurse says. But drug dealers are a different story. “They don’t have boats or planes. They’re not bringing it here. People are just trying to make a living. Sometimes a kid’s parents are gone because someone snitched on them. They’re young, uneducated. They’re just coming up and making it as best they can, and they get locked up over dumb shit when someone snitches on them because they’re jealous. That’s not really cool.”
His friend Bayan says snitching is snitching, regardless.
“Somebody needed to snitch on who bombed the World Trade Center,” he says. “Someone needs to snitch on who is responsible for not getting people out of New Orleans before the hurricane. Somebody needs to snitch on who killed Kennedy. Someone needs to tell on who told on Bill Clinton,” Bayan says. Those are examples of big things people need to go down for.
But a murder, somehow, isn’t enough. It isn’t any of your business.