Chicago Police Battle Street Code Culture
CHICAGO – At Gene's Playmate Lounge at Cermak and Kildare, you can't have a drink unless you're at least 25 years old.
Young guys who might be packing pistols can get a cold beer somewhere else, owner Gene Payton said.
Playmate regulars spend late nights there talking about the shootings popping off on this gang-infested corner of Lawndale that locals call K-Town, where you can get a bag of heroin for 10 bucks behind the auto repair shop across the street.
Neighbors are still talking about the triple homicide on June 19 that sparked retaliatory shootings that left at least two people wounded.
It was part of Father's Day weekend — from June 18 to June 20 this year — when 54 people were shot in Chicago. Ten people died, including a toddler.
One of the murder victims in K-Town was Waseem Smith.
Even a guy in a wheelchair parked outside a corner liquor store thinks he knows why Smith took a bullet to the head: revenge for killing Darrell Brown on Halloween night. Police believe that's true, too.
It seems like a lot of people saw Smith kill Brown when a bar fight spilled onto Cermak, Brown's sister Darcita said.
But no one — not even Brown's closest friends — would snitch on the shooter.
Why? Well, K-town is a small place.
"It's easy for shooters to get away. No one will talk. Shooters know everybody. Even if they catch a shooter all the other people behind them make sure other people don't talk," Darcita Brown said. "From Kolin to Kildare and all the other streets between, it's street code. That's what people live by."
Not much has changed since April 2008, when 40 people were shot on a weekend that was nearly as bloody as Father's Day this year.
The shootings are still senseless. The witnesses are still silent. The bad guys are still out for revenge.
And police are still struggling to put the shooters behind bars.
After reviewing the aftermath of the violent 59 hours from April 18 to April 20, 2008, a Chicago Sun-Times analysis found that only one suspected shooter is heading to trial. Four other cases collapsed because the victim refused to testify against the shooter or the victim wasn't deemed a credible witness.
That's part of a pattern in Chicago: Most shooters don't get charged with pulling the trigger. Last year, fewer than one in 10 non-fatal shootings resulted in charges.
So the question remains: How can the police catch shooters when almost nobody wants to snitch on them?
Reluctant witnesses have always been a problem for police and prosecutors. But today, the "no-snitch" code on the street is worse than ever, Cook County State's Attorney Anita Alvarez said.
During her nearly four years as a gang prosecutor, witnesses regularly recanted their identification of shooters on the witness stand. These days, more witnesses — and even victims — are refusing to get involved in the initial stages of a shooting investigation, Alvarez said.
Detectives often arrive at crime scenes only to be stonewalled by crime victims themselves, such as a young man who refused to identify his shooter moments before he died on the West Side earlier this year. "I ain't telling you s—," the man told officers, and then died.
Gang-bangers often want to handle justice themselves, Alvarez said. So getting shooters off the street requires a change in the no-snitch culture.
One solution: detectives started videotaping witness statements in a pilot program launched last year in the police station at Grand and Central to keep them from changing their story — or "flipping" — later on.
It also makes for more convincing evidence, Alvarez said. The experiment was successful and now detectives are videotaping witnesses in all five of the city's detective headquarters, Alvarez said.
New crime-fighting weapons
Since 2003, Chicago Police officials have been "putting cops on the dots," or using computer-generated intelligence to deploy officers to crime hot spots.
Also, the police department is relying increasingly on electronic surveillance such as court-ordered telephone overhears to catch criminals talking about their deeds.
Law enforcement officials say those strategies are one reason murders have declined significantly since the 1990s.
This year, violent crime has decreased by more than 10 percent compared to 2009 — except for homicide, which is up about 1 percent compared to the same period last year.
But Chicago's violent-crime rates remain much higher than other big cities.
In 2009, there were 16 murder victims per 100,000 residents in Chicago. That's at least double the murder rates in Los Angeles and New York City, which were eight per 100,000 and six per 100,000, respectively. And when it comes to robbery and aggravated battery, Chicago's rates dwarf those of L.A. and New York, according to FBI statistics.
This summer, Chicago has seen the worst two-month run of fatal gun violence against the city's police in 40 years. Three officers have been murdered. Two of the suspected shooters had lengthy arrest records. Police are hunting for the killer of the third officer, Michael Bailey.
"They got laws on the books they just don't enforce the right way. And these sons of a b—— don't feel any remorse. They don't fear any g–d—– consequences, because there are no consequences," retired Police Officer John Holmes said July 18 when Bailey, whose widow is Holmes' cousin, was murdered outside his Park Manor home.
In fact, records show that nearly half the people sentenced for unlawful use of a weapon receive probation in the Cook County courts. Last year, 2,264 people were sentenced for unlawful use of a weapon. Of them, about 54 percent got prison time and the rest got probation or some form of punishment other than prison, such as boot camp or court supervision, court records show.
To make sure gang-bangers get locked up, prosecutors have started to wield a new law-enforcement weapon — the so-called Valadez law, named for slain Chicago Police Officer Alejandro Valadez. One of the three men charged in Valadez's June 2009 murder was on probation for aggravated unlawful use of a weapon, a gun possession charge.
The new law requires prison time for street gang members convicted of possessing a loaded gun in a public area.
Alvarez said the mandatory prison time is a recognition by legislators that too many people charged with felony gun possession violations were getting probation or having their cases dismissed. More than 90 people have been charged under the Valadez law, which Gov. Quinn signed in December.
"What we are seeing in the Valadez law is that we are getting guilty pleas," Alvarez said. "They are getting time and they are [often] pleading guilty instead of going to trial."
Julio Martha, 25, was the first gang-banger convicted under the Valadez law. Martha is a self-admitted La Raza gang member with the tattoos to prove it. He was on parole for aggravated battery with a firearm when gang officers arrested him in the Pilsen neighborhood Feb. 7 after spotting him with a loaded blue steel 9mm semi-automatic pistol.
A jury found Martha guilty on May 19. He was sentenced to 10 years in prison.
Other potential shooters are taking notice, a top law-enforcement source said. An ongoing wiretap recorded gang-bangers warning fellow gang members that the Valadez law could land them in prison for packing a gun.
"The offenders have been talking about it," the source said. "They were talking about the effects of the law . . . that you're going to go to jail."
The fractured relationship between many Chicagoans and law enforcement remains an obstacle in catching shooters.
"The distrust of law enforcement is out there in many communities," Alvarez said. "We have seen the effects of Burge [the Chicago Police commander convicted in federal court June 28 for lying that he never tortured suspects in the 1970s and 1980s.] They don't trust the system. They don't trust the police. And as a result, you have less people willing to cooperate."
Mending that relationship won't be easy.
Alvarez opened a third Community Justice Center this month — a move investigators hope will elicit more cooperation from witnesses.
The Chicago Police Department also is redoubling efforts to make regular citizens their eyes and ears on the street.
Ron Holt, a cop who was recently appointed to head Chicago's community policing program, said neighbors need to break from the "psychological grip" bad guys have on their community and start cooperating with police.
"If you allow the evil and the monsters to compel you to live in fear, then they win," he said.
Holt, whose 16-year-old son Blair was gunned down on a CTA bus in 2007, said rebuilding the bond between police and neighborhood folks starts with bridging the gap of mistrust.
"Unfortunately, there always will be bad apples, rotten apples on the tree [in a police department]. One of my missions is to let citizens know the majority of police in the street are honest and trustworthy," Holt said. "They're not aberrations, not people from Mars. These people are from the neighborhood."
On the bulletproof-glass window at the counter of a K-Town liquor store near where her son Darrell Brown was slain, Diane Brown posted an open letter to the neighborhood.
It's still taped to the window, written in street slang in the voice of her dead son, who friends knew as "D-Boy."
"I'm asking any and everybody please help get justice for me and my fam," the letter states. "If it was you that got hit that night, I would stand for you all. Can you do the same for me? . . . Please stand up for me and tell the detectives whatever you know. I love you all."
No one said a word.
Instead, someone got a gun on Father's Day and killed Waseem Smith — the guy who police suspect took D-Boy's life.
It's still too early to tell if police detectives will "exceptionally" clear Darrell Brown's murder.
That's often how murders are cleared when the only suspect in a shooting is killed before he can be charged. It puts an end to the police investigation, but it does little to deter more shootings.
When a killer gets killed before a jury can convict him, it's not good for anybody in Chicago.
At least that's what Darrell Brown's mother thinks.
"If you tell me that killing the guy who killed my son is justice, I don't want that kind of justice," Diane Brown said. "I wanted who did it put away, locked away. I wish it wouldn't have happened. I want justice for my son, but I don't want bloodshed. I don't want anyone to go through what I went through."
And what she keeps going through.
On the day Waseem Smith was murdered, Diane Brown's other son was a victim of gun violence.
Pierre Brown, who was younger than Darrell, was shot and wounded while walking to a store.
"I'm sick and tired of the violence. I'm tired of it," she said. "It's just not right. It's crazy."