On the streets of north Minneapolis, word travels fast.
So when the lawyer for a member of the Taliban street gang let it slip that another gang member was cooperating with police and the FBI, former friends soon started calling him by a different name online: “Snitch.”
A surreptitious recording of the exchange was later posted on Facebook, where people encouraged others to “like and share” the post. One user said someone needed to snipe the snitch, and he was on his way to the shooting range for target practice. “He got the secrets [sic] service protection?” his post read.
The search warrant from a recent witness tampering case demonstrates how the stigma associated with helping the police is a serious impediment to solving crimes, particularly in the city’s most dangerous neighborhoods where there is a quiet understanding that those who talk will pay a violent price.
The reasons people give vary. Some keep silent out of fear. Others know the person suspected of a crime, or they may have a warrant for their own arrest. Still, some simply don’t trust the police enough.
Several recent cases highlight the problem.
The city took notice late last month when Birdell Beeks, a 58-year-old grandmother, was killed in gang crossfire in north Minneapolis, a crime so unsettling it prompted pleas from Mayor Betsy Hodges and other leaders for anyone with knowledge about the case to call police. No arrests have been made.
Anthony Hines, a former Minneapolis cop, said that others choose silence out of fear of being “dragged into court to testify.”
“They don’t have an issue with telling law enforcement about what’s going on in the neighborhood: What they’re concerned about [is] how their information or their identity is kept private,” said Hines, president of the Minnesota chapter of the National Black Police Association. “Fear does a lot. It’s not always about trying to avoid the police.”
A recent National Institute of Justice study of the nation’s homicide rate said. “When persons do not trust the police to act on their behalf and to treat them fairly and with respect, they lose confidence in the formal apparatus of social control and become more likely to take matters into their own hands. Predatory violence increases because offenders believe victims and witnesses will not contact the police.”
In some neighborhoods, police say that when they start going door to door for information, witnesses develop what detectives sarcastically refer to as “convenient amnesia.”
And a wave of anti-police sentiment triggered by the high-profile killings of unarmed black men by officers in Minneapolis and elsewhere has only made it harder to persuade potential witnesses to speak up, others contend. Many people aren’t convinced that police can protect them if they decide to come forward with information.
“People feel that police will sometimes pass information along” about who is informing, said longtime civil rights activist Ron Edwards, pointing to the now-defunct Metro Gang Strike Force, of which several members were accused of disclosing the identities of cooperating witnesses to rival gang members.
One woman, who agreed to speak in return for anonymity because she feared for her family’s safety, said that her daughter received threatening jailhouse phone calls for months after she picked a shooting suspect out of a police lineup. After the man was released, he would ride by their house, threatening to shoot up her home, the woman said.
The harrowing experience made her think twice about going to police with information about a crime, knowing that it could come back on her if anyone found out that she had snitched.
Some say they turn a blind eye to trouble in their neighborhoods for fear of bringing that trouble upon themselves.
Department officials acknowledge getting witnesses to talk can be difficult but add that “we have also been fortunate to have many individuals who are forthcoming with information,” according to Minneapolis police spokesman Scott Seroka.
“A lot of our homicide cases are solved through community cooperation, including the city’s most recent homicide,” Seroka said in a statement, referring to an arrest in the June 16 shooting death of Travis Washington.
Detectives are also closing in on suspects in several other recent homicides, thanks to tips from the public.
To get people to come forward, experts say that police have to repair relationships with communities where police officers are often viewed as suspiciously as criminals.
One method the department has adopted is the newly formed Community Support Team, made up of respected community leaders who show up at shooting scenes to provide emotional and spiritual support. Police also direct witnesses to the anonymous tip line if they are wary of giving their names.
Witness intimidation is a serious problem, experts say, nowhere more so than in some of the most crime-ravaged neighborhoods on the city’s North Side.
Mike Martin, who once commanded the North Side’s Fourth Precinct and the department’s onetime leading gang expert, said that in certain neighborhoods the fear of violent retaliation or of being branded a snitch prevents people from reporting information about even the most notorious homicides, such as that of 3-year-old Terrell Mayes Jr., who in 2012 was struck and killed by an errant bullet inside his home. A Crime Stoppers poster offering a $60,000 reward to help police solve the crime still hangs in a window of the Homicide Unit at headquarters downtown.
“We know there are people who were there, who know who fired the gun, yet to this day no one’s come forward, despite pressure that was coming down from police and the community,” said Martin, who now heads the state chapter of the Midwest Gang Investigators Association.
Martin said that detectives sometimes put pressure on reluctant witnesses by bringing them in for questioning on unrelated charges, in hopes of “perhaps jogging someone’s conscience.”
Seroka said that several people called with information in December when police renewed their plea for anyone to come forward in the Mayes case.
Police say that more often than not cases without strong physical evidence — a murder weapon, for example, or a set of incriminating fingerprints — hinge on cooperation from the community.
Recently, Beeks’ daughter posted a desperate plea for information in the 58-year-old’s killing.
“I could be your mother, sister, aunt, Grandmother!” Bunny Beeks wrote. “What happens when one of your love ones is the next innocent victim to the crime and violence that plagues our city? Do you know who took my life? Speak up now cause it could be your love one next! Birdell Beeks.”