Street code keeps victims quiet

Published 12:00 am Thursday, June 2, 2011

By Shelley Smith
EAST SPENCER — Three men shot in the leg in a three-day span are refusing to cooperate with police. And the reason, according to East Spencer Police Chief Floyd Baldo, is loyalty to their “street code.”
“In talking with the victims, they’re pretty hard-core guys. They live by the street code and die by the street code,” Baldo said. “The street code to them is what they believe to be their own form of justice.”
One of the three victims told Baldo if he decides to “get back” at the person who shot him, he will. Another didn’t want the person who shot him in the leg to go to jail.
“That’s their philosophy,” Baldo said, “to protect their identity.”
The “street code,” or the law made by criminals on the street, isn’t just a local problem. And the No. 1 rule is to not be a snitch.
“A very common phrase from people we interview, when we know they have information but won’t tell us, is, ‘I’m not a snitch,’ ” Salisbury Police Detective Travis Shulenburger said.
“That’s the root of all of this,” he said.
He said those who obey the street code earn “street credit.” A stabbing, robbery, shooting or big drug deal can help keep a criminal’s street credit score high.
“If you have street credit, the people on the streets fear you, and you gain respect through fear,” Shulenburger said.
And one who has street credit, Baldo said, “doesn’t go by the law of the land.”
“He goes by his law or his gang’s law, and it’s an eye for an eye, tooth for a tooth kind of deal,” he said. “They don’t like bringing the cops in to help them handle anything. They like to handle it themselves.
“The more shootouts and more times they’ve been shot, the more respected they are. The harder criminal they are.”
Salisbury Police Sgt. Brian Stallings says the phrase, “I’m not a snitch,” hasn’t changed in his 15 years in law enforcement. Street credit “flourishes” in gangs, he said.
Baldo said the three shootings over the long weekend could have been gang-related.
“Having three people shot in the legs over 36 hours is very unusual,” Baldo said. “For all we know it could be gang initiation, but we don’t know.”
Authorities say gang members will typically get beaten up, be forced to commit a robbery, or sometimes shoot someone or be shot by a member in order to join.
“To a gang member, the coolest thing is getting shot and living through it, and it just gives them more clout on the street,” Baldo said, which is a reason he is not releasing the names of the victims. “And they think that it’s cool, they think it’s tough.”
And the victims earn more respect by not talking to authorities about an incident, authorities say.
“When they cooperate with us, in the eyes of the ones they’ve built the respect and credit, it’s kind of a discredit,” Salisbury Police Detective Patrick Smith said.
“A lot of times we’ll get people who are a witness or a victim of a crime, and when we’re dealing with them on the streets, they won’t talk to us,” Shulenburger said. “But when we’re behind closed doors, they will talk to us … but they will let us know that they’re not willing to testify in court. They won’t come out and tell it.
“They’re in fear of either their safety or their street credit, or both.”
Fear of retaliation
Baldo, Shulenburger and Rowan County Sheriff’s Detective Chad Moose all agree that victims of a crime, or witnesses of a crime, are fearful to talk to authorities.
“There are people who want to talk but they are too afraid of retaliation,” Baldo said.
“It’s obvious they’re in fear of their safety and probably their street credit,” Shulenburger said. “I truly believe that we have people intimidated out here on the streets for cooperating with us.”
Stallings said people suddenly change —wanting to help police, then backing down.
“Can we say why? No. We can only assume or guess,” he said.
Moose said the county sees criminal activity and gangs a little differently than cities or towns in Rowan County.
“We have a far less urban setting, but we deal with the victims that have also been the criminal, and they don’t trust law enforcement, or think we don’t care,” he said. “We have to get past that and show our desire to clear the case.
“It’s been my experience that the law abiding citizens cooperate with investigators from the start, and the ones that are reluctant to cooperate are often involved in some illegal activity and fear the suspect’s retaliation or too much attention from law enforcement.”
Salisbury-Rowan Crimestoppers is also a tool authorities use in Rowan, and the Salisbury Police Department has cleared major cases lately from the anonymous tip hotline. But they’d like to see it used more.
“Our job is technically about reconstructing things and gathering information, and that’s exactly what Crimestoppers does for us,” Stallings said. “It gathers information. Anonymous or not, it points us in a direction.”
Moose said Crimestoppers is helpful, “but detectives talking to people directly is still the best tool we have.”
Give and get respect
And all agencies say their officers have to show respect to earn it, which is another tool to help with investigations.
“From my experiences with the people out there, whether they walk on the right side of the law or the wrong side of the law, they know I’m going to treat them fairly,” Baldo said. “And because of that, I think both gang members and normal citizens trust me.
“If officers are treating people with respect, they’ll get the same in return, for the most part.”
In dealing with cases where the victim has also been a criminal, Moose said he has to convince the victim that the only goal of the sheriff’s office is to clear the case.
“I try to get across to these victims who may deal drugs that we probably already know that, but that we’re concerned that the suspect’s crime is violent,” he said. “When violence is used, regardless of the victim, we place a high priority on getting the violent offenders off the street.
“As far as respect for law enforcement, I think it’s something that you earn every time you deal with somebody. In years past, there may have been more people who respect the uniform, but now most people want you to show them what you can do and earn their respect.”
‘They’re not afraid’
Respect only goes so far for those raised in a criminal environment, authorities say. And even though a lot of East Spencer’s gang members are currently in jail, younger ones are just getting started.
“It’s real. … Some are in their mid 20s and 30s and have mellowed out, but they’re not afraid to shoot somebody,” Baldo said. “They’re not afraid to go to prison. They’re not afraid to get shot. They’re not afraid to die.
“That’s just the way life is. And it’s a simple life to them. And they know they’ve got people who are just like them who can do their work for them.”
Contact reporter Shelley Smith, 704-797-4246.