Shootings shake a community, and fear becomes an accomplice

It is a sunny day in a coffee shop that stands at a busy intersection in Dorchester, a Boston neighborhood.

It has been almost a decade since Isaura Mendes's son was murdered. Yet even as she tells the story of that evening - the night Bobby was fatally stabbed in the chest - she still looks furtively behind her when she speaks.

Her son's killer is still at large, and it is a swirl of rumors that has helped her piece together the words and actions leading to the murder. The word "snitch" stands out - apparently uttered before Bobby was stabbed.

And it is that word that still resonates here in Dorchester, a neighborhood that's among the most diverse in Boston but riddled with pockets of neglect.

"People are afraid to come forward," says Ms. Mendes, who wears a lapel pin portrait of her son wherever she goes. Over the past decade, she has not been the only one in her family to have lost a child to street violence. Two of her sisters have also lost sons, and another nephew is paralyzed from a bullet.

Yet Mendes herself is still not sure she'd come forward to testify if a gun were fired before her eyes.

"People are afraid, afraid for their lives," she says. "You don't feel that you are protected."

It's that sense of vulnerability that has distressed prosecutors and police officers, as they have watched silenced by fear of retribution, especially when gangs are believed to be involved.

'Don't tell' culture built on fear

Experts say that tactics of intimidation are as central to gang culture as turf, and date back to the earliest street gangs. But across the country, many say that gang intimidation has grown not just more pervasive, but more brazen. Technology has played a role, as gangs use everything from video cameras to cellphones to warn witnesses not to step forward. The money involved in the drug trade has also raised the stakes for many gangs. The result is scores of unsolved cases.

This "don't tell" culture that has permeated many communities has never been adequately addressed, beginning with bullying in elementary school and including widespread mistrust of police, says Carl Taylor, a criminologist at Michigan State University who witnessed intimidation firsthand growing up in Detroit in the 1960s. "You learn at a very early age that you'd better not tell," he says, "you'd better not snitch."

In Boston, where gangs are far less entrenched than in Chicago or Los Angeles, Suffolk County District Attorney Daniel Conley says that witnesses are still intimidated in almost every case involving gangs or other violent crime.

This spring, a video was found in a case involving the unlawful possession of a gun, in which the defendant and his friends were telling people on tape to "stop snitching." In another case, gang members delivered copies of a grand jury transcript to apartments in a Boston housing project, as if to say, "we know who you are." Gangs often fill the benches of courtrooms, deterring witnesses who are about to testify.

Mr. Conley urged legislators recently to give better protection to witnesses of violent crime and more harshly penalize those who threaten them. It has become a particular concern here, as 60 homicides this year have been attributed, in part, to gang activity.

The methods of intimidation are sometimes overt, but more often they are implied, says David Procopio, a spokesman in the DA's office. And those methods are having a very real effect. Of dozens of residents who witnessed shootings in Boston parks this summer, including the nonfatal shooting of a youth football player in broad daylight, almost no witnesses have come forward.

The silence can torment victims' families. When Tina Chery's son was shot dead one afternoon on his way to a party for teenagers against violence, there were plenty of witnesses, but none willing to testify.

People would approach Ms. Chery on the street. "'I'm sorry, I saw, but I just can't,'" they'd tell her. "I understand," she would reply. "Would I [testify myself]? I don't know," Chery says. "My heart would tell me to do the right thing, but my mind would say, 'Don't be stupid, girl.' There is no guarantee."

Chery formed the Louis D. Brown Peace Institute in 1994 in her son's honor, to help other survivors of homicide deal with grief. She says she agrees with efforts to crack down on gangs, but that is only one side of a complex issue. While survivors of homicide are piecing their lives together, police seek clues to find the offender, without any guarantee that a conviction will follow.

Indeed, as prosecutors and police seek ways to combat mistrust, community members in Dorchester say their tentativeness also stems from the criminal justice system. Often, they say, they are questioned by police or prosecutors, only to find that a defendant has been set free. They say this deep mistrust often leaves them wondering what is more dangerous: perpetrators of violence, or those who are supposed to shield them from that violence.

Neighbor against neighbor

Often victim and perpetrator live in the same community. "That person who I'm testifying against might live right next door to me," Chery says.

That was the case in the murder of Bobby Mendes. The killer, who disappeared shortly after the stabbing, was a neighbor of the Mendes family. "I knew him since he was a baby," Isaura Mendes says. She still has sleepless nights. She thinks about her son in his young 20s - tall, well-built, good-looking. She thinks about the gunshots she hears in her neighborhood and the senseless deaths she has experienced.

Mr. Procopio says that the DA's office is careful not to put community members in danger. "We depend on witnesses to tell us what they know, have seen or heard," he says, but "we do not pump anyone for information who is unwilling. We understand when we ask people to do the right thing, we are asking something very difficult of them."

Many experts says that protection programs, like proposals from the DA's office in Boston, have suffered from a lack of funding, at the federal, state, and local levels. "It has never been given the teeth that it needs simply because there is no manpower. If someone goes after you, it is a 24/7 job," says Dr. Taylor.

Searching for solutions

Still, cities are pushing forward with ways to stem what sometimes seems like a never-ending cycle of gang violence. In San Bernardino, Calif., Superior Court Judge Michael Smith helped draft a rule to ban camera phones from courthouses. "We heard in L.A. that gang members would be coming to court with camera cellphones and photographing witnesses ... so the whole gang would know who you were," Judge Smith says.

In other parts of the country, it is not just the quantity, but also the style, of threat. "Gangs are more brazen today. They feel entitled ... [even] to shoot at police," says Brian Sexton, a supervisor in the gang prosecution unit at the Cook County State's Attorney's office in Chicago.

He says over the 10 years he has worked in the gang unit there, tactics have become more violent, in part, because of the money at stake in drug sales. He says cases have gotten harder to solve as gang members pay each other off - often in the millions - to keep one another silent. "Now it's moving into more like organized crime," he says.

View from the street

The view from the street differs though. In Boston, Mario Rodrigues, a former gang member working with former and current gangs to help members get access to school or jobs, says that tactics are not more aggressive today. Among gang members, he says, problems are dealt with internally. "If someone kills your friend, you'd rather deal with it on your own," he says. "You don't want to be labeled a snitch."

He says witnesses, victims, and gang members feel used by the system. "They [police, prosecutors] want to soak you for information, and then leave you on the streets," says Rodrigues. "They know what's going to happen to you."

Adults do sometimes "turn a blind eye," Rodrigues says, but it's not because of gang intimidation. "There may be some mean faces," he says. But if intimidation were so prevalent, "there would be a lot of dead adults." He says that fear of testifying has been ingrained in the community over the past decade, especially from times like the early 1990s, when gang violence was even more prevalent in this city.

Witness protection programs can not adequately work, experts say, unless cultural norms in the community are addressed, in Boston and beyond.

The fact that witness don't come forward "is frustrating for everybody," says Christopher Sumner, the executive director of the Boston Ten Point Coalition, an ecumenical group formed to help prevent youth violence in communities. He says some feel that matters should be taken into their own hands, while for others there is an unspoken code that sharing information with the police is some sort of violation.

Even as church and government leaders address these norms, the fear is palpable, says Janet Connors, whose son was killed four years ago. "I definitely feel people don't feel safe testifying," though she isn't sure how much of it is based on perception versus reality.

Still, she says, when her son Joel "Jo Jo" Turner was murdered, "things" were said between the friends of her son and the friends of the offender.

The two groups met at a bowling alley once. Words were exchanged, she says, and as the offender's friends sped off from the parking lot, one held up a knife from the backseat and smiled. "That kind of stuff is real."

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