Connecticut Code of the street is culture of silence Anti-snitch culture hinders police in Bridgeport probes

By Brittany Lyte and Tim Loh

Connecticut Post

BRIDGEPORT, Conn. (AP) -- In the mid-'90s, Roland Brantley was a high-rolling drug dealer who'd already survived two gunshot wounds. Working a street one day in this city's Hollow section, he was handed a business card by a passing police officer.

He had no plan to contact the patrolman. In fact, he planned to keep bagging thousands of dollars selling drugs, he said. But someone spotted him accepting the card and his world flipped.

"Everyone in the area thought I was a rat," he said.

When a rival dealer attacked a short time later, his bullet missed Brantley's throat by inches, leaving him nearly dead on the pavement with a neck wound. Today, a nasty scar line is visible on the back of his neck.

He knows his assailant's name. But he's never told police.

"Absolutely not," he said. "He shot me in the neck for taking a card. What is he going do to me next?"

Brantley describes a code of the street that is common in cities like Bridgeport. It's the culture of silence -- often glorified as "Snitches Get Stitches" in rap songs and on clothing -- and is rooted in mistrust of law enforcement, fear of retribution and willingness to take personal safety into one's own hands.

In Bridgeport, the concept is deeply entrenched in the minds of men and women of all ages, dozens of recent interviews conducted all over the city suggest. While a minority of people said they'd be willing to assist police in early stages of investigations, not a soul said he or she would testify in a murder trial.

"I'm black, I'm living in a drug-infested area, and if I help you solve an investigation, I'm labeled a rat," said Brantley, 43, who now earns a living managing apartment rentals. "Then what happens to me? What happens to my family? If you cooperate, it helps your community, but it doesn't help you."

Many remember 8-year-old LeRoy "B.J." Brown Jr., who was set to testify in a 1999 homicide case against a drug kingpin who gunned down his mother's boyfriend. The boy was shot to death before he took the stand.

Bridgeport detectives say they understand residents' fears, but insist that retribution in this city is rare -- which makes it all the more galling when no one speaks up after many people witness a crime.

"It's the No. 1 impediment to solving unsolved homicides in Bridgeport," says John Smriga, the state's attorney for the Fairfield judicial district. "It's something that's been the case for a long time."

Almost one-third of the 1,094 homicide cases in this city since 1979 remain unsolved, Bridgeport police say.

When Tisdale School let out one recent day, a half-dozen eighth-graders, clad in school uniforms with backpacks, strolled through their East End neighborhood. Too young to drive, they already had a litany of complaints about the police. One claimed that his friend, while trespassing, was bitten by a police dog, even though he hadn't attempted to flee. Another claimed that a patrolman who is often on their case about motorbikes had recently driven past him and his friends, cast them an intimidating look and raised a middle finger.

The boys described the dangers of talking with law enforcement. One had heard of someone "snitching" on a marijuana dealer and subsequently getting jumped. Another heard of someone "messing around snitching," and then getting shot on Stratford Avenue. A third based his fears on what he's seen on TV shows and read in news reports.

They weren't being paranoid. A 2006 survey of nearly 700 Massachusetts teenagers found that 12 percent of teens who had reported gang crimes were subsequently threatened or beaten up. The survey, conducted by the National Center for the Victims of Crimes, also found that one-third of teens had at least heard of such retribution taking place. An even larger number of teens reported that if you are labeled a snitch, you become an outcast.

Police have means to protect witnesses, but those aren't perfect.

They can park a cruiser outside your door for surveillance, but they can't do it forever. They can enroll you in the state's witness protection program -- established in Bridgeport in 1999 -- but most witnesses aren't willing to uproot their lives in the name of speaking up.

Even so, the city has sent more residents into that program than any other municipality, State's Attorney Smriga said. But that, too, can't circumvent the biggest problem.

"There's no anonymity in the courtroom," Bridgeport Police Capt. James Viadero said.

The Brown case hovers over this city like a ghost.

Initially, police provided protection to Brown and his mother, Karen Clarke. But Clarke quickly dismissed the police presence, deciding that the marked car out front was causing a neighborhood disturbance.

The protection gone, Russell Peeler Jr. ordered his brother to execute Clarke and Brown.

Peeler was sentenced to death for ordering hits on the mother and son. He was also convicted of killing Clarke's boyfriend in the case in which Brown was set to testify. But the damage was done: The message was: Snitch and you get shot.

So far this year, Bridgeport has had nine homicides, including the January slaying of 14-year-old Justin Thompson. Several witnesses were present, but the police haven't been able to make an arrest. In April, a 3-year-old girl caught in daytime crossfire was struck by a bullet in the buttocks. The person who shot her is still roaming the streets.

The shootings galvanized residents who say it's time to turn the tide. Hundreds of community members poured into the streets for rallies. Chanting "No more funerals! More graduations!" residents of all ages marched in a symbolic attempt to take back the streets.

Some cities have created marketing campaigns aimed at subverting the "No Snitch" message.

In 2005, the Baltimore Police Department launched "Keep Talkin'," offering free DVDs and T-shirts to promote police cooperation. A few years later, a group of residents of Rochester, N.Y., splashed "You Bet I Told" across billboards as one of many initiatives.

A movement is also spreading calling for radically different policing methods.

One driving that is Professor David Kennedy, director of John Jay College's Center for Crime Prevention and Control.

Kennedy argues that American law enforcement has in recent decades used "relentless" tactics in inner-city communities, which failed to drive out the drugs and violence, but alienated many of the people living there. The "mass incarceration" of adult males in many of these communities, he said, has turned otherwise law-abiding citizens against the police.

"These residents do not want this kind of attention. They don't think it's in their best interest and they don't want police," he said.

His advice for police departments is to apologize for old tactics and ask for community help in developing new strategies. His methods have already found a home in cities like Stockton, Calif., Cincinnati and Chicago.

His favorite example is High Point, N.C., which in the late '90s had a population of 76,000 and up to 20 homicides a year.

On one Saturday morning there, the body of a 16-year-old boy was left on the roadside for several hours before someone finally called authorities. That's when the police realized that "No Snitching" was about more than fear of retribution or wanting to fit in.

"You have no relationship at all," Police Chief Marty Sumner said in a recent phone interview. "No trust."

Partnering with Kennedy, the city's former chief called community meetings at which he admitted that decades of tough drug sweeps had failed to curb the drug trafficking or violence. He apologized for not changing tactics earlier and offered to try a new approach with the community's help.

"That completely disarmed everyone in the group who were so mad at us for things over the years," Sumner said.

The goal was to eliminate the outdoor drug trade. Law enforcement agreed to prosecute only the worst offenders to the fullest degree. At meetings attended by a cross-section of residents, they offered those who had committed lesser offenses a deal: Quit selling drugs by tomorrow, or you'll get prosecuted, too.

The community rallied behind the new approach, and the drug markets, which had persisted for decades, were driven out almost overnight, Sumner said.

While many vocal Bridgeport residents are fed up with the violence in their city and want to take action, many aren't yet ready to make friends with the police.

Playing basketball at an East End park on another day, an 18-year-old bragged that he'd recently been released from 2-1/2 years in prison for helping steal someone's car. He kept his mouth shut during interrogations, he proudly said, though one of his accomplices ratted him out. He's bitter about that.

But he's angrier about the bullet that pierced his leg last year. Lifting his pant leg to show the scar, he vowed that if he ever catches up with his assailant, he won't turn to the police.

"You got to protect yourself," he said. "It's kill or be killed."

Published: Tue, May 29, 2012