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'We've all got to learn to be snitches': Fruit Belt neighbors plea for an end to violence

On a warm summer morning in the Fruit Belt, the pleas for help just kept on coming.

But there was one, from a woman who knew the grandmother and grandson killed on Grape Street earlier this month, that caused people to stop and listen.

"The night she was shot, everyone turned into Stevie Wonder," the woman said looking out at the packed house inside First Centennial Missionary Baptist Church on High Street.

She said she understood the reluctance, even fear, to cooperate with Buffalo Police, but pleaded with people in her neighborhood to "please pay attention."

The alternative, she reminded the more than 100 residents in attendance, is that the people who killed 54-year old Yvette Johnson and 17-month old Kyrie Johnson might never be caught.

"Don't be afraid," she told the crowd. "They can't kill you but one time for talking."

Like everyone else who stood up at the "Emergency Community Meeting" Saturday, the woman spoke with the understanding that her name would not be made public because of fears of retribution. Police have said the shootings are gang-related.

One by one, residents talked about those fears in the wake of a double shooting Thursday night at the same address on Grape Street where Johnson and her grandson were killed July 2. Officials confirmed one arrest Saturday but said that the investigation is far from over.

"We had a baby killed," Deputy Police Commissioner Joe Gramaglia told the gathering at one point. "We're begging for the community to help us. We're pleading with people."

Early on in the meeting, one woman asked Gramaglia point-blank what protection he could provide if people know something and want to cooperate.

"We know the word on the street," she said of the perceived dangers of talking with police. "What safety precautions do we have if we provide information?"

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Gramaglia acknowledged the distrust of police in some neighborhoods but said there are numerous avenues, all of them anonymous or confidential, that people can use to pass along important information.

For some in the crowd, that was clearly not assurance enough.

"It's a two-way street," said one man from the neighborhood. "You have police officers who disrespect the community. Homeowners even get disrespected by police officers."

Another man told the story of sitting on his porch while police descended on his street in search of a shooter. Not one of the officers approached him for help, he said.

"You have to engage us more," he told Gramaglia."We have to break down these barriers."

While several people talked about the need for more security cameras in the neighborhood, others spoke about the "curse of silence."

"Snitches. I guess that's the word young people use," one man said "We've all got to learn to be snitches."

Gramaglia said the police are making giant strides in the department's efforts at improving relations with Buffalo's African-American community but acknowledged there is still a long way to go before trust can be achieved.

Until then, he's hoping someone with information about the shooting will have the courage to step forward.

"We need that one person, and then hopefully the domino effect kicks in," he told the crowd Saturday.

Buffalo Common Council President Darius Pridgen, one of the organizers of the meeting, encouraged people in attendance to keep the Johnsons in their heart when they think about helping the police.

"If babies are killed," Pridgen said Saturday, "and we don't have a heart, we've lost the community."

More than 100 people filled the First Centennial Missionary Baptist Church in the Fruit Belt Saturday to talk about the need for cooperation with the Buffalo police investigation into recent shootings on Grape Street. (Phil Fairbanks/Buffalo News)

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