Effort combats Detroit’s anti-snitch culture

James David Dickson
The Detroit News

The 16-year-old boy was shot seven times — once for each digit of the girl’s phone number he’d just gotten, the offense for which he would pay with his life. When the cops showed up to the party to investigate, no one had seen a thing.

More than two decades later, the pain from losing his best friend, and the community’s disinterest in working with the police to get him justice, has stuck with Cory Chavis, now 42.

“We have to change the language we use about calling the police,” said Chavis, adding that calling it snitching doesn’t help.

That need for change is part of the reason why Chavis, pastor of Detroit’s Victory Community Church and a leader of the Detroit Community Clergy Alliance participated in the “We Speak Up” press conference Wednesday alongside more than a dozen fellow faith leaders and John Broad, president of Crime Stoppers of Michigan.

“We Speak Up” is a collaborative effort between Crime Stoppers and the local faith community whose goal is fight the anti-snitching culture in Detroit. More than 100 churches and other houses of faith have signed on to post large “We Speak Up” signs outside their places of worship.

“Stop snitching only works when it’s not your household” affected, said Darren Penson, pastor of Greater Quinn African Methodist Episcopal Church and chairman of Crime Stoppers’ Faith Based Committee. “What happens when that day comes when it’s your household — your brother or sister who has been victimized?”

In late June, the same week when nine people were fatally shot at Emanuel AME Church in Charleston, South Carolina, 12 people were shot, one fatally, at a block party at Dexter and Webb on Detroit’s west side. No one present was willing to tell the police what happened and Police Chief James Craig had to take to the media to publicly ask for tips. The case remains open months later.

Just last week in Pontiac, a man was walking down a street when he was shot twice in the hip. When detectives investigating the case met him at the hospital, he became “highly uncooperative,” according to the Oakland County Sheriff’s Office.

Said Broad: “We have to change the culture of silence in Detroit.”

Appealing to faith leaders to fight that culture is nothing new. Crime Stoppers billboards around town use local ministers such as the Rev. Edgar Vann to promise that callers to the anonymous tip line, (800)-SPEAK-UP, will in fact remain anonymous.

“Crime Stoppers has some work to do in helping people understand it really is anonymous,” said the Rev. Brian Relford of the Lomax Temple AME Zion Church, a member of Crime Stoppers of Michigan’s faith-based committee since its inception.

The anonymity Crime Stoppers offers “is huge,” he said.

“People believe if they talk to the police, they’ll be retaliated against,” Relford said. If people knew that Crime Stoppers’ calls are routed to a call center in Canada, Relford added, that might help.

Crime Stoppers cases offer cash rewards to tipsters and even when rewards are retrieved, the initial caller’s identity remains protected, organizers said.

The word “snitch” is a sore spot for Crime Stoppers collaborators. Changing the conversation, they said, means talking about calling 911 or calling Crime Stoppers in terms of securing one’s own community.

Alton James, central region coordinator for the Archdiocese of Detroit, said Detroit must become a community where “marginalized people are taken care of, looked after,” rather than people looking away when violent crimes occur.

Bishop Charles Ellis III of Greater Grace Temple on 7 Mile, where the press conference was held, first came to work with Crime Stoppers after his wife’s brother, the church’s chief maintenance engineer, was shot and killed in his Detroit home in November 2013. His wife’s niece reached out to get his case listed with Crime Stoppers.

As for why people who witness or fall victim to crime don’t call 911 or cooperate when the police do arrive, Ellis said he’s “very sympathetic” to those who feel they can’t speak up. In tough, tight-knit communities, “everybody knows everybody, everybody knows everybody’s routine.”

Putting signs up at churches is just the beginning. The next step, participants said, will happen this fall and winter as churches engage their members in a community-police dialogue to foster the relationships that lead to increased collaboration with the police.

“I don’t want 911 to be a number I can’t call,” Ellis said.