Baltimore Police Combat 'No-Snitch' Mentality
RENEE MONTAGNE, host:
There's a public relations battle going on between gang members and police in Baltimore. The gang started it three years ago with a video warning people not to talk to the cops, or else. The police and U.S. Attorney's Office are responding with billboards and flyers, and they're not your typical anti-crime slogans.
NPR's Laura Sullivan reports.
LAURA SULLIVAN: The Bentley flyer. It's almost legend now, and it's also a giant red billboard on the corner of Park Heights and Cold Spring, just above the pawnshop and liquor store.
Ms. FRANCINE DAVIS(ph): Goodie Rice got 25 years in federal prison for carrying a gun. Anyone needs a used Bentley?
SULLIVAN: It takes just a second for Francine Davis to get it as her son tugs on her sweater. Goodie Rice used to ride up and down this very street in his Bentley.
(Soundbite of laughter)
Mr. DERRICK PARKER(ph): Oh, that's messed up. Anyone need a used Bentley.
SULLIVAN: Derrick Parker is getting his car fixed next door and comes over when he sees Davis reading the sign.
Mr. PARKER: And they put his name up there? They said you're nobody, man, you know. I can see if they were like (unintelligible), you know, (unintelligible). Not a regular person or anything.
SULLIVAN: To Officer Keith Harrison though, who often comes out to this corner, Goodie Rice is anything but a regular guy.
Officer KEITH HARRISON (Baltimore City Police Department): They moved a lot of drugs through this neighborhood, you know, the Rice brothers. They had this whole side of town, you know, on lockdown.
SULLIVAN: Rice is serving his years in federal prison in Pennsylvania and didn't want to comment for this story. But his billboard has special meaning to police and prosecutors. Officials say his gang helped produce the homemade don't snitch video that struck fear in their witnesses for years.
Mr. LEONARD HAMM (Chief, Baltimore City Police Department): These guys at one time thought they were invincible. No, they're not.
SULLIVAN: Police Chief Leonard Hamm took over the department three years ago, at a time when the city was having trouble putting away even the most brazen drug dealers and killers. Since partnering with federal prosecutors two years ago, the city has had a string of high-profile successes. Chief Hamm says the billboards and flyers aren't about bragging rights, it's showing the neighborhood they really can lock people up for decades.
Mr. HAMM: It's a brilliant stroke. It's absolutely brilliant. It's edgy, but it's not vulgar and it's not disrespectful. It's the truth. It's the truth. So I think they're moralist.
SULLIVAN: There are dozens of billboards. Solothal "Itchy Man" Thomas, a man with an apparent itchy trigger finger and a penchant for avoiding murder convictions, has one above a grocery store. He was finally convicted in federal court last year. His sign: "Itchy Man" Thomas got life in prison for carrying a gun. Wonder what his new nickname is.
Officers Robert Horn(ph) and Keith Harrison are strolling down a street near Itchy Man's billboard, walking up to people sitting on their front stoops.
Unidentified Man #1: Pass you out some flyers, brother. The new program the federal government's starting, man. Let these young boys know.
Unidentified Man #2: Yeah.
SULLIVAN: Some people take the flyers, but a lot of others just glare at them. Harrison says the no-snitch policy is alive and well with some people.
Unidentified Man #3: Come on. Use that. Try to hit people.
Unidentified Man #4: They don't want nothing from the police department. You never know what you're going to get from people when you pass it out. They don't want to get anything handed to him by the police.
SULLIVAN: It isn't long before they run into someone who actually knows the guy on today's flyer, Edward Countess, a man who got life and 10 years.
Unidentified Man #5: That man got life and 10 years. Let it rest.
Unidentified Man #6: Hey, Bill. What do you mean let him rest?
Unidentified Man #5: He got life and 10 years.
SULLIVAN: This man, maybe in his 20s, wearing clothes easily three sizes too big, refuses to take the flyer and heads into the liquor store. Harrison follows him in.
Officer HARRISON: Let me tell you what we're trying to do. We're trying to let the young boys know this is what he's doing now.
Unidentified Man #5: He didn't do nothing. He did time because he didn't open his mouth. But he actually didn't do nothing. I know that from knowledge. He didn't do nothing.
Officer HARRISON: Okay. Well, look, somebody thought different because, you know, why did he plead out for life?
Unidentified Man #5: Because he didn't want to make no statements.
Officer HARRISON: Oh, I hear that.
Unidentified Man #5: I'm out the street, girl.
Officer HARRISON: Oh, yes, right.
SULLIVAN: The man brushes pass Harrison and Horn and climbs into a waiting car with tinted windows. It pulls away but suddenly stops. A young woman appears from the back seat, runs over to the officers, grabs the flyer, and hops back in. The two officers smile. They know everyone in that car will read it. That's all they were hoping for.
Laura Sullivan, NPR News.
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