Cracking ‘code of silence’ to solve murders must be a two-way street

Witnesses with crucial information about a crime may have legitimate reason to be afraid to report that information. But in the end, witnesses owe it to the community to speak up. If not, they risk the lives of more young teens like Brandon Perez and Nathan Billegas,

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Students and their supporters participate in a peace walk around Benito Juarez High School in Pilsen, less than a week after a mass shooting outside the school killed two teenagers and wounded two others, Monday afternoon, Dec. 19, 2022. Nathan Billegas, 14, and Brandon Perez, 15, were killed and two other teens — a boy and a girl, both 15 — were wounded as classes were being dismissed Friday at the school in the 2100 block of South Laflin Street. | Ashlee Rezin/Sun-Times

Students and their supporters participate in a peace walk around Benito Juarez High School in Pilsen, less than a week after a mass shooting outside the school killed two teenagers and wounded two others, Monday afternoon, Dec. 19, 2022. Nathan Billegas, 14, and Brandon Perez, 15, were killed and two other teens — a boy and a girl, both 15 — were wounded as classes were being dismissed Friday at the school in the 2100 block of South Laflin Street.

Ashlee Rezin/Sun-Times

He had on a black mask, a black hoodie and a black North Face jacket.

That is all the public knows so far about the alleged gunman who killed 15-year-old Brandon Perez and Nathan Billegas, 14, and wounded two other students outside Benito Juarez high school as classes were being let out last Friday afternoon.

Someone may know who pulled the trigger. But if there is someone out there with knowledge about the crime, he or she hasn’t said much to authorities, as far as the public knows.

Community activists are hoping a $2,000 reward, for information leading to the arrest and conviction of the gunman, will get the right someone to talk. And the Chicago police have an anonymous tip line in place that offers up to $15,000 for information that results in a conviction in a homicide case.

Editorial

Editorial

We hope the rewards are enough incentive, though there is no empirical evidence to prove that rewards help to solve crimes in general, says Arthur Lurigio, a Loyola University Chicago criminology professor known for his ground-breaking studies on Crime Stoppers.

Yet Lurigio, who grew up on the West Side, is thinking what many other concerned Chicagoans likely are as well: Reporting information to the authorities on deadly shootings — especially the murder of two young teens in daylight outside their school — should be a civic duty, an intrinsic reflex rather than an action motivated by money.

“We shouldn’t have to provide a reward as an incentive,” as Bill Morton, the president of the Rogers Park Chamber of Commerce, said at Sunday’s news conference regarding the reward.

Witnesses with crucial information about a crime may well have legitimate reason to be afraid to report that information. Police may not be able to protect them from retaliation.

But in the end, we — if we’re a witness — owe it to the community to speak up. Because the “code of silence” that allows hundreds of murders and thousands of shootings to go unsolved every year contributes to our city’s problem with violence.

‘I ain’t telling you’

The “code of silence,” unfortunately, is an unwritten rule observed on the streets as well as in law enforcement.

Police officers tend to clam up when a colleague is accused of wrongdoing. Potential witnesses sometimes do the same when a crime takes place. Even victims may not want to divulge who hurt them.

Take the case of a dying teenager whom Sun-Times reporters wrote about in their 2011 Pulitzer Prize-winning series on how the “no-snitch code” can impede police investigations and court proceedings.

Robert Tate, 17, told officers he knew exactly who shot him in April 2010.

But before Tate took his last breath, he reportedly said, “I ain’t telling you s---.”

There are many reasons why many people stay quiet. For change to happen, trust between police and the community — something that’s supposed to be a focus of Chicago’s police reform effort — is essential.

Crime victims who survive and other witnesses are wary of going to police because they fear retaliation, Lurigio said. No amount of money is worth the risk if you could be assaulted or killed for speaking out.

Many people are also well aware that if they become involved in the criminal justice system, they may have to take off work or miss classes as the court process gets underway. Worse, they know they will undergo scrutiny and if they have a criminal background themselves, their lives will be put on public display, Lurigio said.

Sometimes the attacker is a family member. Other times, many of those who are privy to information are themselves “fringe players” in the crime world, not law-abiding citizens.

And when many people, especially those in low-income communities of color, don’t trust police or think they can’t do anything to bring justice, no one should be surprised when people decide to stay mum, said Lurigio.

The Chicago Police Department needs to keep in mind that although its motto is to “serve and protect,” many citizens don’t believe it. If police want witnesses to come forward, they must emphasize working in tandem with the community to ensure residents they don’t have to look over their shoulder when they provide information.

As Lurigio put it, nothing will change unless “trust and safety” is part of the bargain.

But it’s got to work both ways. Residents must realize that if they can identify a suspect but choose not to tell law enforcement, their community may well suffer more harm at the hands of those who feel emboldened because they’ve gotten away with their crimes so far.

In the end, they risk the lives of more young teens like Brandon Perez and Nathan Billegas, whose families now must bury them instead of celebrating the holidays with them.

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