Too many neighborhoods ruled by fear

A Dora the Explorer backpack was left where a 2-year-old girl was shot. (JOSEPH KACZMAREK / Daily News)
A Dora the Explorer backpack was left where a 2-year-old girl was shot. (JOSEPH KACZMAREK / Daily News)
Posted: July 17, 2012

It's a downright shame that hundreds of likely witnesses have kept quiet rather than help police nab the thug who fired a bullet into the stomach of a toddler during a neighborhood block party.

But their silence has become common in Philadelphia. It's a commentary on people's lack of confidence in the police to protect them when they do come forward.

Their silence is a symptom of the callousness affecting too many neighborhoods where residents have become so accustomed to lawlessness that they chalk up the occasional shooting of a child as just part of living in the city. That has to change.

With so many people at the scene when it happened, someone had to have seen something when the June 16 shooting occurred in Logan. An innocent 2-year-old girl was struck by a bullet while standing between parked cars as shots rang out on a summer night.

The child, who spent 15 days in the hospital, is home now and recovering from her injuries. But, really, how does a 2-year-old girl get over the mental trauma of being shot? Three other people also were also wounded.

A $10,000 reward was announced shortly after the shooting. There also have been assurances that a tipster can remain anonymous. Yet not even the child's mother has stepped up to offer police a lead that could help hunt down the culprits.

"It's a disgrace. This is shameful," said city Managing Director Richard Negrin.

But it's really no surprise that in neighborhoods where the "no snitching" culture has become entrenched, criminals wield more power than law enforcement.

People who have seen what happens to neighbors who cooperate with the police have a right to feel unsafe in their communities. They have little faith in witness protection programs that spring leaks. There's also an almost hereditary mistrust of police in poorer, minority neighborhoods where memories of long-ago police abuses remain vivid.

That means the police have a lot more work to do than solving crimes. They can't be blamed for people not seeing that the only way they are going to make their neighborhoods safer is by getting rid of the bad seeds. But it is to the police's advantage to do what they can to help people see that. And the city needs to give police the tools needed for that task.

Similarly, it was good to see the Pennsylvania Supreme Court give prosecutors authority to use secret grand juries to indict suspects and compel witnesses to come forward, if necessary. That much-needed tool can be used to safeguard and reassure frightened witnesses and victims.

Under the change, witnesses can testify behind closed doors in preliminary hearings, sparing them from being seen by a suspect's friends. They would still have to testify publicly during a trial.

No doubt, this change alone will not be enough to calm the nerves of crime witnesses. But it could help convince more people that cooperating with police isn't a death sentence.

Working together, the police and residents of the city's embattled neighborhoods can get rid of the vermin who make it unsafe for a 2-year-old to play outside.

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