Contrarian: Don’t Start Snitchin’
Is there any reason why witnesses to violent crime in this city should risk speaking up?
There were a dozen or more witnesses on Sigel Street back in June when four-year-old Nashay Little was shot in the leg during a battle between two young gunmen. None of the neighbors would speak to police investigators at first, because — well, we all know why. Gunmen have guns, and it's bad for your health to snitch on them.
The wall of silence in the Point Breeze neighborhood that evening prompted the city's exasperated chief of detectives to wonder aloud why he should even bother looking for the shooters. Joseph Fox told the assembled media that “if we can't get members of this community to step forward and come to the assistance of a four-year-old girl, then we may as well hang it up.” District Attorney Lynne Abraham wasn't much better. “The choice is really simple,” she scolded. “It's the moral thing to do and it's the right thing to do, to come forward, to step up and speak up.”
Fox and Abraham earn their paychecks fighting crime, and based on the city's recent body count, they're doing a pretty crummy job. So there's something a little unseemly about two highly paid civil servants seeking to shame an impoverished community into taking action as they themselves shamelessly pretend to represent a credible, functioning criminal justice system. The people of Sigel Street know when they're being hustled. Criminal justice in this city stopped working decades ago. The only thing the system seems to excel at is assuring the criminal class that it's no big deal to get caught with a loaded handgun. (Of course, police aggressively looking for concealed weapons would be a good place to start; see “The Dead of Night,” November's cover story, online at phillymag.com.)
When the cops finally found the young men whose crossfire landed Nashay Little in Children's Hospital, I doubt anyone on Sigel Street was surprised to learn that both suspects were veterans of our city's novel “catch and release” program for gun offenders. Malcolm Gantz, 19, was already awaiting trial for a previous weapons charge on the evening he started firing away at 13-year-old Vaughn _Wylie — who responded with the gunfire that hit Nashay Little. Twice since his 12th birthday, the precociously beefy Wylie had beaten the rap on gunpoint robbery and weapons and assault charges, and previously, at the age of 11, he had accidentally shot himself while playing with a handgun. Wylie is a juvenile menace, but our judges just kept tossing him back out on the street until he finally almost killed someone.
Vaughn Wylie is why there is nothing particularly outrageous about the “Stop Snitchin'” culture in Philadelphia's poorest neighborhoods. “Stop Snitchin'” is a rational response by terrorized citizens to a justice system that betrays them every day. It is a system in which each player is resigned to failure in the most self-serving of ways, from the police commissioner who whines impotently that “we're not going to arrest our way out of the problems we're having” (what else are cops for?), to the judges who obsess over clearing their crowded dockets, to the prosecutors who set low expectations for those judges, to the elected officials who fund and oversee the whole mess. There are good reasons why no one on Sigel Street would help the cops solve Nashay Little's shooting. What fool would entrust his or her life to the same feckless bunglers who had already surrendered control of the neighborhood to Malcolm Gantz and Vaughn Wylie in the first place?
This is the real story behind the infamous Faheem Thomas-Childs murder, the angle that the local media have utterly ignored. In February 2004, at least four men exchanged gunfire in front of a North Philly elementary school, and a 10-year-old boy was shot and killed. The subsequent media circus surrounding the case focused entirely on the way the witnesses, one after another, began recanting their statements to police as the trial progressed. The D.A.'s office actually prosecuted one man for instructing his daughter to lie on the stand. The editorial pages responded with sentimental palaver about how the streets will never be safe until ordinary citizens “step up and speak up.”
No one even tried to point out that if the justice system had been working properly, the four men on trial would have been behind bars on the day of Faheem Thomas-Childs's murder. They all had prior criminal records filled with gun possession and drug arrests. Most communities would have put away these sociopaths in a state penitentiary long ago. But as you go over the lurid details of their Philadelphia criminal records, you see the cops repeatedly catching them red-_handed, only to have the D.A. withdraw charges, or reduce them in exchange for guilty pleas. Then the judges — when they aren't quashing or dismissing the cases on disputes over _evidence — reward the defendants' guilty pleas with either brief stays in county jail, or years of meaningless supervision by overworked probation officers. Witnesses to the Faheem Thomas-Childs murder knew very well that some of these guys would be back on the streets pretty soon, and that no testimony in court could help little Faheem anyway. The system had already failed Faheem. Testifying against his killers would only raise one's chances of joining him in the hereafter.
The judges and other apologists might reasonably claim that the cops, the prosecutors, the courts and the prisons are all overwhelmed, and that justice may well be unaffordable for any poverty-ravaged big city. I might even believe them if it weren't for the case of Brooklyn. With 2.4 million people, Brooklyn is now more than 60 percent larger than Philadelphia, and one-quarter of all Brooklynites live below the poverty line — a poverty rate three percentage points higher than Philly's. But Brooklyn, despite the vastness of its ghettos, has far fewer shootings and fewer homicides than we do. The reason is that in Brooklyn, they've stopped coddling bad guys caught with illegal handguns. The prosecutors in Brooklyn insist on one full year in jail for first-time gun offenders — a sentence unheard-of here. Gun-packing _repeat offenders go up the river for years of hard time in the state pen. The judge of Brooklyn's special gun court is so tough that one defense attorney was quoted as complaining, “You could be Mother Teresa and you're going to jail for a year.”
The Brooklyn approach is not about locking up a generation of young minority men and throwing away the key. It's about changing deviant behavior by signaling society's revulsion with it. There were fewer shootings in the entire city of New York than in Philadelphia last year, even though New York has five times as many people. The population in New York City's jails has been dropping steadily for two years. Fewer young men are getting locked up for carrying guns in Brooklyn now, because they get the message: Brooklyn's justice system is serious about protecting the public.
Philadelphia has a special gun court, too. It started in 2005, after years of dawdling over how to pay for it, and the news is not good. According to the court's own records, the percentage of gun offenders sent away to state prison has gone down to four percent, from nine percent just a few years ago. More gun offenders got local jail time last year, but now the city's prison system is bursting at the seams. Half of all gun offenders still get set loose on probation, and since no one ever gets hard time for probation violations, it's likely most are still running around armed and dangerous.
Even with a gun court, Philadelphia judges always seem to find a way to go easy on the young hoodlums who hold entire neighborhoods hostage. Only the judges know for sure why this is so, but there are at least two appalling possibilities. First, a number of them are bleeding-heart imbeciles who don't believe stiff sentences have any deterrent effect in the streets. Second, since judges are elected, they need to raise campaign funds from the defense attorneys employed by the drug dealers who appear before them — in other words, Philadelphia judicial careers are fueled with and corrupted by blood money. So which is it? Are the judges stupid, or merely crooked? We might just fix this broken system of ours if only someone inside the Criminal Justice Center would start snitchin'.