Witnesses fear sharing what they know

June 7, 2013
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When Sherman Harris was shot to death Aug. 2, he became the Austin neighborhood’s 23rd homicide victim of 2012.

The death of the 52-year-old auto mechanic from Rantoul soon became yet one more unsolved murder case in Chicago, underscoring the challenge police face in catching and arresting killers.

Police say it can be especially difficult to get witnesses in many neighborhoods across the city, including Austin, to share what they know.

Killed in the 900 block of North Lawler Avenue while visiting a friend, Harris’ case appears to have gone cold quickly.

The Chicago Police Department did not comment on the status of Harris’ case, and residents who live near where he was killed didn’t want to talk either.

This silence happens all too often says, Marcus Henderson, who delivers mail in the neighborhood.

“Nobody would talk to police if they saw anything,” Henderson says. “You get yourself hurt if you don’t keep your mouth shut. I don’t agree with it, but that’s the way it works.”

Vince Dey, who lives near where the shooting occurred, agrees the code of silence often sets in — and that’s understandable, he says.

“If you tattle, you make yourself a target,” Dey says. “The person who tattles might be doing the police a favor, but he’s getting himself in trouble with the people who are really in charge out here. I wouldn’t do it.”

Witnesses’ refusal to talk to police is often cited by Superintendent Garry McCarthy and other top officials as a reason why more Chicago homicides don’t get solved.

Only about one out of every four homicides was solved in 2011, according to the Chicago Police Department ‘s annual report on homicides. And the clearance rate has remained low the last two years, according to a recent story in Chicago magazine.

Mail carrier Henderson blames this at least partly on the so-called “no snitching” rule.

He points to former Cook County Commissioner William Beavers, who was convicted of tax evasion in federal court earlier this year. Before his conviction, Beavers told reporters he was charged only after he refused to testify against other elected officials.

“If someone who gets himself elected won’t talk to the police, why would a kid from the ‘hood’ do it?” Henderson asks.

“I remember them putting balloons and flowers out on the curb after it happened,” he says about Harris’ death last summer, one of 36 homicides in Austin last year, according to RedEye’s Homicide Tracker. “People weren’t happy about someone getting killed right here, but what is anybody going to do?”

Matthew L. Miller, pastor of the Rising Sun Missionary Baptist Church, located less then a mile from the garage where Harris was killed, believes part of the problem lies with police.

“People don’t want to talk because there is a lot of fear. People around here have a lack of trust in the police,” Miller says.

He says one reason residents are unwilling to talk to police stems, at least in part, from the way they’ve been treated in the past.

“I think in most cases [of violent crime], it’s chalked up to drugs or gang relations. (Police) don’t investigate with the same urgency that they would if the victim was white,” Miller says. “There needs to be a lot less profiling. The police need to work on improving their relationship with the community.”

Tracy Siska, executive director of the Chicago Justice Project, agrees race is an issue.

“There is absolutely 100 percent a problem with racial trust. It’s been that way for 100 years,” he says. “There’s no cooperation between the police and community members.”

Siska doesn’t think the “no snitching rule” plays a major role.

“I’m sure it plays some role in things,” he said. “But really the [murder] clearance rate was going to drop no matter what since the early ‘90s because inner-personal murders have plummeted.”

Gang violence is a factor in some cases going unsolved, Siska says.

That’s because “there’s no relationship, and it’s kind of hard (for police) to establish a connection. . . . . With this kind of violence the question is, ‘Which gang has done it,’ and even if you figure that out, then you need to ask ‘Who in the gang has done it?’”

Criminologist Sammy Gibson, who works with juvenile offenders in St. Louis, has seen the effects of “no snitching” firsthand.

“It’s not a rule, it’s an urban lifestyle,” Gibson says. “I don’t want to say the idea of not talking when someone sees a crime has made urban youth too far gone, but it definitely makes police work harder.”

Although she thinks witnesses should cooperate with law enforcement, Gibson understands the fear people living in high-crime areas experience.

“Working in a juvenile treatment facility, I’ve seen how these kids won’t say anything,” Gibson says. “If you talk, you’re not just putting yourself in danger, you make your family and friends a target.”

This story is part of a week-long series about homicides in Chicago. AustinTalks and ChicagoTalks undertook a semester-long investigation of the topic with a grant from The Chicago Community Trust. To read the rest of the stories, click here. If you have questions or comments, please e-mail project editor Suzanne McBride at smcbride@colum.edu.

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