You’re robbed while walking home, or jumped and beaten. You’re threatened with a knife or a thief takes your bike or car. What do you do?
The obvious answer for many is to call 911 and report the crime. But it’s not that clear-cut for everyone.
Last week, I talked to a 25-year-old man who said he’d recently been shot in the upper arm. I heard stories of teenagers who were jumped from behind and stripped of their cellphones and cash. Some of the robbery victims were beaten. None of the crimes were reported.
The 25-year-old said he dug the small-caliber bullet out of his arm and left it at that. The beating victims just gave themselves time to heal. Those who were robbed took it in stride.
“You gotta take the loss,” one robbery victim told me. “Take it on the chin. I look at it as life is sad, but it’s life.”
Everyone in the group I interviewed was African-American. All were on parole and working for the Philadelphia-based Mural Arts Program’s Guild, a paid apprenticeship that boasts a 13.5 recidivism rate, compared with the 67.5 national average. I wanted to talk to the group after Robyn Buseman, director of MAP’s Restorative Justice Program, mentioned how many of the men in her program were victims of unreported crimes. That conversation took place in the spring, and I was struck by the idea of having no one to turn to, not even the people who were paid to help.
When I contacted Buseman recently, she was working with a different team, yet still seeing the same problem.
Why don’t they call? Because it wouldn’t help, they said, because police don’t care about small crimes. One man asked me if I would call 911 if my car was broken into. When I said yes, he replied, “But why? You think they’re going to come out there with fingerprint powder and investigate?”
They also don’t call because they believe that they — the victims — would be the ones put under the most scrutiny. “If cops come, they'll tell you there’s going to be an investigation,” one of the men said. “But who are they investigating? The person that shot you? No, they’re investigating you.” The man who picked the bullet out of his flesh was on probation, and he worried that reporting it would mean a return to jail, even as the victim of a shooting.
There’s also this: You’re a rat in the eyes of the community even if you report a crime that someone committed against you. No one likes snitches, they said, and there’s no such thing as confidentiality. “You shut your mouth and you’re the last man standing,” one said. Buseman knew a young man who cooperated with a police investigation. He then received a copy of the police report in the mail — with his name as the informant highlighted. The threat was real.
As one man put it, “nobody cares,” not the police, not the government, not the media, and not people in general. “Everybody take care of their own,” as he phrased it. “Your own justice.” I asked the man sitting next to me what would happen if I beat him, stole his money, and ran. His answer: “I’d let the streets handle that.”
They seem to accept that justice differs depending on your neighborhood and the color of your skin.
I asked Ram Cnaan, a social policy research faculty director at the University of Pennsylvania’s Goldring Reentry Initiative, why these crimes went unreported. The relative minor nature of the crimes was one factor, he noted, adding that he — a white college professor — had to wait for four hours for police to respond to his call of a stolen vehicle. One of the first things the officer said was, “Your car is by now spare parts.”
In addition, some victims don’t believe authorities trust them, or even care. “It is all of the above and a sense of lacking power,” Cnaan wrote in an email. “Many of the ex-prisoners (are) resigned to the fact that they are vulnerable. They experience intimidation and force in the prison and know that the cost of resisting may be way more costly than accepting it as part of life. Complaining would not bring any relief, so why bother?”
It’s easy to let stereotypes win: All cops are corrupt. All young black males are criminals. Life is long and hard and busy, so just put people in boxes and move on.
I’ve done it. I hope I’ve learned from it.
I was a police reporter in pre-Katrina New Orleans, working the 2-10 p.m. shift. One night, as I was packing to go home, the police radio crackled with a “34S,” a shooting.
I drove to the scene, probably grumbling, definitely tired. Once there, I watched as paramedics frantically tried to save the young man lying on the street. I stood with police officers I’d joined at countless other crime scenes, all of us shaking our heads and casually noting that the medics were fighting a losing battle.
The teenager died. I wrote a brief piece, maybe two paragraphs, about the shooting. It ran in the next day’s newspaper and then I forgot about it.
Two weeks later, I got a call at the office from a woman who was barely comprehensible through her sobs. She asked, “Why didn’t you write about my son?” She told me her son’s name. I didn’t recognize it. He was a shooting victim, she said, an innocent victim. He wasn’t involved with guns or drugs or gambling, she said. He wasn’t a corner boy who got what he deserved, she cried, just a kid in the wrong place at the wrong time.
I told her that I hadn’t heard about someone simply caught in the crossfire, but I would take her son’s name and check with police.
The mother was right: Her son had simply gotten in the bullet’s way as it traveled from the shooter’s gun toward the intended victim. (Who was allegedly a drug dealer, if that matters.)
When police told me the time and date of the shooting, I realized I’d been there. This woman’s son, her only child, was the teenager I watched the medics try to save. This heartbroken woman would have given anything to have been there when her son’s blood stained the street. I had watched his blood flow — and I’d mostly thought about how late it was and how much I wanted to go home.
Natalie Pompilio is a Philadelphia-based writer who wrote this for The Philadelphia Inquirer.
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