Recent criminal investigations in Utica were more difficult due to witness cooperation, officials said, because of influences like music, fear, and lack of empathy.
From broken windows to homicides, Utica Police Capt. Jim Watson of the Criminal Investigation Division said, police are more than familiar with witnesses’ reservations about talking to the cops.
“I think there’s a couple of reasons for it,” he said. “One is fear of retaliation. Another is people don’t want to think they’re not able to handle things on their own. They don’t want to ask police for their help.”
DON’T SNITCHES GET STITCHES?
The truth is, UPD has been fortunate not to have encountered many cases of retaliation, Watson said, but the fear is there.
“There are occasional threats,” Watson said, “but more so it’s the assumption that, ‘This person committed a violent act; so why wouldn’t they retaliate if I told?’ We want them to come forward because the violence (a perpetrator) was involved in – they need to be held accountable for that act.”
Watson said very often a witness to a crime won’t come forward, or they will give a portion of what they saw to police. What they may not understand is that there is some protection police can supply to someone who feels intimidated.
“There are things we can and have done in the past – simple things from having a patrol car check the area of where they are staying; to assistance of getting people funds to relocate; or to get a bus ticket out of the area,” Watson said.
People can also come forward anonymously by contacting CID by phone if they choose to, he added.
IT’S AGAINST ‘THE CODE OF THE STREETS’
Oneida County District Attorney Scott McNamara said some rap music has a major influence on city youth, because some of it blatantly discourages ‘snitching.’
“There have been a lot of songs that lead you to believe that cooperation with police at any level equals snitching,” he said, “which is against the code of the streets. It’s very influential.”
McNamara said especially in Utica, a city of about 50,000 people, officials run into this concept. People who were there when someone was hurt or even killed will tell police they didn’t see a thing, he said.
“In one case, a witness received a letter while incarcerated,” McNamara recalled. “It was a picture of that individual with his mouth sewn shut, with a caption that said ‘Snitches get stitches.’”
That picture was later admitted into evidence, because prosecutors were able to trace the drawing back to the defendant on trial.
Another instance was a double homicide on the corner of Arthur and West Streets in 2004. Ricky Powell, a reported Crip gang member, and Brian West, of local rap group Brick money, were both killed. The jury was hung on two occasions, McNamara said of the trial, before a star witness finally cooperated with him.
“The ‘no snitching’ attitude has nothing to do with fear, in my opinion,” he added. “It has to do with not wanting to cooperate with government in any way. Most interpret snitching as when you tell on somebody; and we think more of the word ‘snitch’ when someone is selling their story for something.”
Many times, someone who is incarcerated, facing jail time, or on parole might ‘snitch’ to get favorable treatment on the case; say through a letter to parole about their cooperation, McNamara said. Others just don’t care to cooperate, he said.
‘I JUST DON’T WANT TO BE A SNITCH’
“You’re not being a snitch by telling us what you saw,” McNamara said. “It’s very difficult to overcome that burden when you have an eyewitness who has no benefit to gain by just being honest.”
In the 2007 murder of UPD Officer Thomas Lindsey, McNamara said two men saw the shooter run away. One of those men told prosecutors, ‘I just don’t want to be a snitch,’ McNamara said.
There’s this code of violence embedded into the brains of the younger generation by music,” he said. “Songs make it so they think they’re violating the code of the streets.”
RECENT CASES LACKING WITNESS COOPERATION
Recent news stories shed light to the lack of witness cooperation in Utica.
- Teens Joseph Hill and Nathaniel Skermont were stabbed on Oswego Street March 7. Police said in the days following that Hill was not willing to discuss with them who attacked the boys. Skermont was too badly injured at that time to be interviewed.
- On May 22, two men were injured in separate incidents: Ferris Bell, 23, was shot at the corner of James and Miller Streets; and Kenneth Patterson, 25, was shot near the intersection of James and West Streets. As Bell recovered in the hospital, many of the patrons at the bar he was shot near declined to speak with officers. Patterson told police he chalked it up to a random act of violence, and asked them not in investigate the case.