Allentown, like other cities across the nation, is struggling to break through the 'code of the street' to solve homicides and other offenses.
By Manuel Gamiz Jr. The Morning Call
ALLENTOWN, Pa. — It was an hour before closing at the Johana Grocery and Deli and the shop was packed with customers. Outside, several young men were hanging out, as they usually do, when bullets began to fly.
The shots -- fired by a lone gunman -- hit three of the men, including one who made it inside the Allentown deli, then collapsed and died, police said.
One of the store's owners working that night said he was too busy helping customers to notice the commotion -- or even see what the dead man looked like -- during the July 9 shooting. Neighbors said witnesses -- both inside and outside the store -- watched from afar as investigators pieced together details of the crime, and told police little.
The homicide remains unsolved.
"We have not had a lot of cooperation in that investigation, and I'll leave it at that," said Assistant Chief Ron Manescu.
Police and those who live near the store say the reluctance to report details of the crime at 502 N. Ninth St. is an example of witnesses staying silent out of fear of being labeled snitches -- or being the target of retaliation.
Like police in many cities across the country, especially those plagued by street crime and violence, Allentown detectives have to deal with the wall of silence that forms when victims and witnesses are reluctant to speak to them.
"Everyone here respects the code of the street," said city resident Luis Morales, standing in front of the Johana Deli last week. "From the young to the old, they know."
The Johana Deli case is one example, but law enforcement officials say silence is a problem that they have had to deal with for years.
"It's very frustrating," Manescu said. In many unsolved cases, he said, "we have someone and they have information that might get a very dangerous person off the street and they don't give it to you. I don't understand the reasoning or rationale for that."
To break through the wall of silence, city and county authorities are using anonymous tiplines, discreetly interviewing potential witnesses and even offering to relocate people through witness protection programs.
Code of silence
Allentown police will not say how many people they spoke to about the Johana shooting because the investigation is ongoing. The case is one of 11 homicides in Allentown this year, six of which remain unsolved. This year's homicide totals are at a pace close to 2005, when the city saw a record 21 homicides.
Recently, city and police officials in Philadelphia, which is seeing some of its highest homicide totals in years, called for the public to break the code of silence and come forward with information after three people were shot to death on July 22 in a crowded bar.
Philadelphia Police Capt. Benjamin Naish said officers arrested a man in connection with the shootings on July 28, but police and city officials were upset that he was allowed to walk the streets for days when two dozen potential witnesses were at the bar.
Naish said the "no-snitch" mentality is a problem that plagues every major American city. Philadelphia police use several methods to persuade possible witnesses to talk, but ultimately, he said, "someone is going to have to want to do the right thing."
"It's a never-ending cycle," Naish said. "Crime is going to continue to increase if those people that commit crimes are allowed to walk the streets. The same problems that plague the community are going to continue to happen."
The "no-snitch" mentality has even taken shape in the form of a Web site, www.whosarat.com, which claims to offer information, including photographs, names and locations, about police informants and undercover agents. Creators of the paid site, which launched in 2004, say that it is a tool to help defense attorneys and criminal defendants prepare for cases.
A disclaimer on the site says the creators do not condone violence or illegal activity against informants or law enforcement officials, but also lists photos and profiles of "Rats of the Week," has online polls asking questions such as "Do you agree that criminal informants are cut from an untrustworthy cloth?" and sells T-shirts with the message "Stop snitching."
In Allentown, Manescu said, some people just don't want to get involved while others were brought up with the attitude that snitching to police is one of the worst street offenses. Others want to handle problems using "street justice," he said.
"I think it is a significant problem, especially with some of the street violence we see in the streets of Allentown," Lehigh County District Attorney James B. Martin said. "We feel that there are people who witness things who profess a lack of knowledge, sometimes even with the people who have been the victims of violent crimes."
Martin said it is most common among gang members to not cooperate with police investigations, even if they are the victims.
"Some have even told us, "We will handle it ourselves,"' Martin said.
Others worry that if they talk, the violence will find them.
"I have a large family," said Priscilla Jimenez, who lives near Johana Deli. She said she did not witness the shooting, but even if she did, she probably would not have talked. "I've heard of people getting shot for being the snitch of the block."
Residents live so close to one another, Jimenez said, that being discreet when talking to police would be tough because "everyone in the neighborhood would know you talked to them."
Shortly after the shooting outside the deli, residents in the area of Ninth and Liberty streets said they feared the death of 19-year-old Juan Rivera of Allentown would spark revenge shootings. Another man was possibly paralyzed in the shooting, police said.
Until police make a significant dent in ridding the streets of drugs and guns, many people will continue to live by the code of the street, said Morales, 33. The code preaches a distrust of law enforcement, retaliation against those who have wronged you and, most important, no cooperation with police.
Morales, who has lived in Allentown for 16 years, said he would be reluctant to speak to police unless a child got hurt or worse.
"I have children and a family myself," said Morales, who splits his time between his parents' home on Liberty Street and south Allentown, where he lives with his fianceé and children.
Morales, who frequents the deli but wasn't around when the shooting happened, understands why witnesses would keep silent if they witnessed such a violent crime.
People fear retaliation, he said.
"You have someone here that is so bold and brazen to shoot at someone in front of people," he said. "If they would go to that extent, this is a person that really doesn't care. If they found out that you opened your mouth, they will get you.
"I could be labeled a whistle-blower or a snitch just for talking to a cop, not even about a crime."
Morales said much can be done to change the street way of thinking, such as having a stronger police presence in neighborhoods and getting guns and drugs off the streets.
"If the people see that police are helping them, then the people are going to do what they can to help the police," he said.
Manescu said he understands that witnesses fear retaliation, and police try to assure them they will be protected. Police can charge a person with the crime of witness intimidation, he said, and there have been a few cases. More important, he said, witnesses can protect themselves and others by ridding the streets of a violent person.
"The [witness] might end up being a victim, by someone they could have helped put away," he said. "That's what I don't understand."
Juan Rodriguez, the 39-year-old manager of a downtown Allentown barbershop, said he has heard people say it's "better to cut off your tongue" than talk to police. He said he probably would only talk to police if he or his family were the victims of a crime. Other than that, he said, "it's none of my business.
"It's not that I don't have confidence in police," said Rodriguez. "I have confidence in police. I don't have confidence in the criminals."
Manescu says he encounters this attitude often -- people who refuse to help unless they or family members are hurt or killed.
"When their family member or friend is a victim, then they want to push us," Manescu said. "We tell them, "We can't beat people to talk to us."'
The Johana Deli falls inside the city's 8th Ward and just outside the boundaries of the Old Allentown Historic District. The neighborhood is ethnically diverse and densely populated, with converted apartments amid restored historic homes. The last census count showed nearly half of the people who live in the blocks immediately surrounding the deli are renters.
About 3,000 households make up the 8th Ward, said Kim Beitler, president of the neighborhood block watch, with a portion being a large transient population that moves throughout the city and surrounding areas.
"When you don't have homeowners, you don't have stakeholders in the community," she said. "Your community is always changing. It is hard to develop a connection to your neighborhood."
The city is targeting Old Allentown for revitalization, aiming to convert apartment buildings to their original use as single-family homes, which would lower population density. The median household income is lower than the city's as a whole. A quarter of the households have incomes of $15,000 or less, according to a 2004 report.
City and police officials, as well as residents, complain that crime has increased in the area, mostly break-ins, graffiti and other forms of vandalism. Serious crime, including robberies, rose 10 percent from 2003 to 2006, police data shows. Less serious crime was down; however, minor assaults, vandalism and malicious mischief were at their highest point in four years.
City officials and residents say the graffiti is one of their bigger worries because it can signify that gangsters or drug dealers are marking their territory. People who live near the Johana Deli say troublemakers act as if they don't have anything to worry about, displaying gang colors, cursing loudly and committing crime in plain view.
A grand jury is one way police and prosecutors can make witnesses and victims open up. A county grand jury, which is held in secret, determines whether there is enough evidence to file charges and has been used many times to solve homicides and other cases in the city and county. Once subpoenaed, witnesses are required to answer questions or face charges, including perjury.
"We have used the grand jury, with great success, to compel people we believe to be witnesses to testify," Martin said.
Allentown police's anonymous crime tipline (610-439-5911) lets witnesses phone in information without fear of reprisal. Martin said police officers also take the "fear factor" into account when interviewing possible witnesses. After a street crime, police canvass the area looking for witnesses and talk to them at the scene, but during follow-up interviews, they are more discreet.
"We're not going to have witnesses sitting in police vehicles," he said. "We'll have them call or come to the station."
Martin said the state also makes money available for witness protection programs, which the city has used.
"We are not giving them a new identity or sending them across the country," he said. "But we do provide new living accommodations at sites away from Allentown."
In newsletters, the 8th Ward Neighborhood Block Watch stresses that residents who want to help police can do so anonymously by filling out a Chec-Mate card available through neighborhood groups. The card, standing for Citizens Helping Eliminate Crime, can be mailed to the city communications center. If necessary, officers can contact the tipster for follow-up.
Beitler, the block watch president, lauded police for their crime-fighting but said neighborhood policing, in which the same officers cover a particular area, could help in getting residents to talk to police.
"It is hard for people to establish trust with police officers unless they see the same officer or two on a regular basis," she said. "Residents have to get used to seeing them walking the neighborhood or riding their bike."
Allentown police recognize that too. In late May, police relaunched their bicycle program after a four-year absence, and after the fatal shooting, police officials beefed up patrols in the area, both by car and bike.
On occasion, a pair of Allentown officers quietly glide past the deli.