When five-year old Syniah Herndon was hit by a stray bullet in Brooklyn this week, most of us thought about our own kids. The beautiful little girl survived the bullet in her leg, but there is still unfinished police business. Brooklyn, which has seen a 14 percent increase in the number of shootings this year, is stuck with the task of trying to make sure that the shooters didn’t hurt any other children in the neighborhood. But the job of the police was nearly derailed because none of the approximately 150 people who were in the area at the time of the shooting immediately came forth to speak with law enforcement.
Perhaps we can make the assumption that black people are primitive animals who don’t care about their preschool children. We can, alternatively, go a bit deeper and try to determine if there might be logical (though not always justifiable) reasons that people in the community are afraid to come forward.
We can start with a simple question: What kind of people might be out spraying bullets at 2:30 in the afternoon? They probably weren’t mailmen or firefighters, but were probably criminals or drug dealers. If you speak up and give the police everything they need to prosecute, are you and your family going to feel safe from retaliation? Probably not, especially when dealing with the NYPD, a department that is known throughout the nation for exploiting the public trust.
I am personally disappointed with the “stop snitching” campaign in urban America, one that is in-part supported and enforced by those who regularly engage in criminal activity. Such a campaign is destructive to the black community and has been heavily misinterpreted by our youth. At best, “stop snitching” should go as far as criticizing the behavior of a subset of police informants, many of whom are driven to “snitch” by selfish motivations and have historically been planted by police to undermine important social movements. Also, as a fundamental component of human nature, nobody likes a rat or a spy.
At worst, the “stop snitching” movement sometimes creates a ridiculous and counter-productive wall of silence which leads to the murder of scores of innocent adults and children every single year. While we can all agree that this wall is unhealthy, we must realize that we all play some role in the creation of the wall. Police have always had their own “blue code of silence,” in which loyalty to the police department supersedes the importance of doing your job in an honest and forthright way. The police code of silence has weakened public safety and cut deeply into our ability to trust our nation’s officers. Additionally, the history of police using one informant against another hasn’t won them many fans in the black community.
There is finally the issue of disproportionate and racially-biased allocations of security. The police have almost never made African-Americans feel safe and as a black man, I’ve rarely felt that the police are my friends. They don’t always come to our communities to protect us; they are there to protect the rich from the poor, which has many times meant protecting whites from blacks. They are not always interested in presenting themselves as allies and partners, but have historically been our overseers and oppressors. In the event that some citizens step outside the boundaries of anti-snitching campaigns to embrace the idea of genuine cooperation with the police, they are then confronted with the reality that the cop is going to roll out of the housing project right after the interview, leaving the single mother alone with community predators who may force her to pay a very high price for civic responsibility. So, while it might sound idealistic and warm for us to say that we should help the police at any cost, the truth is that this is not always a pragmatic possibility.
Police need to regain the trust of the African-American community. This is not something that happens overnight or with one simple apology. It also doesn’t deny the fact that many departments across the nation are taking progressive steps to strengthen their community ties. There are thousands of good cops across America, and that should be remembered. But rebuilding trust comes from years of community policing and genuine gestures to improve the quality of connection and communication.
Police must also continue to find more effective ways for citizens to share information without any possibility of this cooperation being revealed to those who might try to harm them. Anonymous tip lines are being used around the country, and this is a good start toward helping citizens to fulfill their innate moral inclination to do what is right.
In the case of five-year old Syniah Herndon, no one wanted that little girl to suffer and people wanted to help her. Also, many of these folks could care less about a “stop snitching movement” in the hip hop community. Black people love their children too, so we have to find more ways that they can protect their children without having to give their lives in order to do so. That’s the bottom line.