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The code of the streets FOCUS STORY: Police need witnesses' help to find those responsible for Buffalo's violent crimes. Inner city residents, fearful of retribution, say police need to do that by themselves.

Police and some neighborhood residents fed up with violence on city streets like to say that "it's hip to snitch."

But on the streets, there's another saying: "snitches get stitches."

Or, sometimes even worse.

"No matter how much the government of Buffalo and the media make it look like the cops will protect us, they won't. They don't give a damn about inner city people," said William Torres Brandi, a 44-year-old West Side resident who talked to a reporter at the corner of Massachusetts and West avenues, a few blocks away from two fatal shootings in recent days.

Homicide investigators are trying desperately to solve those and six other deadly shootings all this month. But Brandi and others say there is good reason not to help police trying to solve violent crimes:

It's a given the shooter will vanish, but the shooter's friends, often fellow gang members, remain among the curiosity-seekers.

"If you cooperate with the police, people will look at you and think you're a snitch, and snitches get stitches," said David Rodriguez, standing by the intersection of Massachusetts and Shields avenues where his friend Shaquille Woods, 19, was killed a week ago.

Anyone spotted talking to the police can become a marked man or woman, Brandi said.

"Even as I speak with you, others are looking at me and thinking I'm talking to a cop and that I'm a snitch, but I don't care. I have nothing to hide," he said.

His hardened perspective was underlined by Rena Carson.

"It's not my business what happens. The police need to leave everyone alone and do their job. That's what they get paid to do," the 22-year-old woman said.

But when it was pointed out that police often need the help of witnesses to make an arrest because officers were not present when the crime was committed, Carson grew angry.

"We don't have a badge," she said.

Police say they are not without sympathy for those who live in crime-filled neighborhoods and are well-aware that if people cooperate and are found out, "it is like signing your own death warrant."

When it came time to prosecute Riccardo M. McCray for the City Grill massacre, more than one witness testified they were taking the stand against their wishes. One, in fact, had to be brought into court in handcuffs to assure her appearance.

Following the trial that convicted McCray and put him away for life, one of the five eyewitnesses who testified was relocated through the Erie County district attorney's witness-protection program.

The four others still live in the area.

"Not one, to my knowledge, has suffered retribution," District Attorney Frank A. Sedita III said.

But he, too, does not dismiss fears some potential witnesses harbor, though he says it is only one of the reasons people may not cooperate.

"There are three dynamics that we see: apathy, disdain for law enforcement and genuine fear of retribution," Sedita said, adding that his office and the police make protection of witnesses a priority.

"We have secured witness protection money and have temporarily -- and, in some cases, permanently -- relocated witnesses," he said.

Such a measure is too late for Jamie Norton. The 19-year-old Derby resident was killed just hours after testifying before the Erie County grand jury in the murder case of a 15-year-old Sudanese boy whose body was found dumped by the Buffalo River.

Jamie's mother says she knows all too well why people are afraid to come forward.

"The police aren't there to support them," Christy Norton said, adding that her daughter didn't think she was in danger. "She was 19 years old and a little naive."

> Hirschbeck Massacre

At about 2 a.m. Aug. 5, 2009, Norton was fatally shot along with her friend, Joey Lovett, 25, on the porch of a home on Hirschbeck Street, near where Lovett lived.

Three of their friends, who were sitting in a parked car in front of the porch, were also shot, but they survived.

Police have called the incident a robbery turned bad, but Norton and Lovett's loved ones remain convinced Norton was targeted for testifying.

The man Jamie Norton had testified against, Julian Christopher, was already behind bars when the shootings occurred on Hirschbeck Street. In the fall of 2009, he pleaded guilty to first-degree manslaughter for killing Kowat Ruwal.

But Norton and Lovett's families believe associates of Christopher were involved.

The police have yet to make an arrest in the Hirschbeck shootings.

"There's a $10,000 reward, and people still won't come forward and help us punish who stole my daughter's life," Christy Norton said. "She was a baby. She was 19. Somebody should pay for what they did to her. Somebody knows something."

Still, even knowing what happened to her daughter, Norton said, she hopes witnesses come forward to help solve the rash of shootings and killings in Buffalo over the last few weeks.

"Those people they are protecting are the people stealing their children's lives, my daughter's life," Norton said. "They need to stand up."

Buffalo police say they recognize the hazards of cooperating and that is why they promote the department's confidential TIP-CALL line: 847-2255.

Of criticism that they do not care about the people who come forward, they say that is the point of the anonymous tip line.

Mayor Byron W. Brown and top police officials Wednesday went to Massachusetts and Shields avenues, where Woods was slain by a gunman last Saturday.

"We were asking the public to come forward. In the past, these walks with the mayor have generated information and have led to the solving of homicides," Police Commissioner Daniel Derenda said.

But it is not always as simple as just persuading people to speak about what they have witnessed. Aside from the threats hanging over those who snitch, there is another problem.

> Gang warfare

The deadly wars between competing streets gangs in the drug trade produce victims -- but many of these victims are part of the violence and are loathe to cooperate.

At present, a gang based in the Fruit Belt is warring with two other gangs from the Broadway-Fillmore neighborhood and Central Park section of the city, authorities said.

The violence can go on for weeks, months and sometimes years, police say.

So how difficult is it to get cooperation?

When Vernon Hardy Jr., 24, was slain Tuesday afternoon on 18th Street, several houses from the intersection of Massachusetts Avenue, a young woman with him was also wounded. But she refuses to cooperate with police.

A day earlier, when Anthony Banks was critically wounded by gunfire on Montana Avenue near East Ferry Street, a witness told police what had happened, but he then refused to give a statement.

"I've lost my mind," he told investigators, while objecting.

Hoping to persuade him to assist, he was placed in handcuffs and taken to Police Headquarters, authorities said. Whether the witness cooperated is unknown.

Daniel Houston, who described himself as the best friend of Shaquille Woods, said he does not cooperate with police.

"Whatever Shaquille's baby mom wants to do, I'm right there with her," he said.

And what does Takarra Watkins want?

"Hell, yeah, I hope they catch the killer," said Watkins, eight months pregnant with Woods' son.

But would she urge anyone who knows details of the homicide to cooperate?

"It's a decision they would have to make, if they want to cooperate," Watkins said.

Trina Watkins, her mother, explained why her daughter was not insisting people provide information to police.

"You have to understand that these kids are from the streets and they honor the code of the streets," Trina Watkins said. "We want the police to do their job. We're not going to do it for them."

She added that she too lives by the rules of the street when it comes to cooperating with police:

"Hear no evil, speak no evil and see no evil."

> 'It's cool to be stupid'

And how do street cops respond to this wall of indifference and fear?

"We're living in a hip-hop, anti-establishment culture where people identify more with drug dealers and hustlers, who are doing all the wrong things," said Ferry-Fillmore District Officer William Johnson. "It's cool to be stupid."

Adherence to the code of the streets is tantamount to saying "I'm an outlaw," the 26-year police veteran said not far from Martin Luther King Park, where five people were shot, one of them fatally, on May 12.

"It's easy to say 'No snitching,' " he added, "until someone kills one of your loved ones. What we need to do is stop the ignorance."

And despite contrary opinions offered by people out on the streets, Derenda said, "A lot of good people have stepped up in the last couple years."

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