In the early morning hours of July 5, Stephon Johnson was shot in the back on 116th Street near Morningside Park.
Even as his life slipped away at Mount Sinai Morningside, the East Harlem resident refused to help police catch his killer, the NYPD said, noting he was “uncooperative.”
The 23-year-old died less than a half hour after the 2:40 a.m. shooting. With little to go on, investigators canvassed the area for ballistic evidence and video. The case remains unsolved.
On July 31, an 18-year-old man was shot in the stomach at North Elliott Place and Park Avenue, near the Brooklyn Navy Yard, at around 1:10 a.m. Cops described him as “highly uncooperative.”
On Aug. 9 in The Bronx, an 18-year-old was shot in his left shoulder on East 141st Street near Willis Avenue in Mott Haven at 10:30 p.m — one of 16 victims in 12 shootings across the city that Sunday. The circumstances of the shooting were unclear, and if the teen knew something, he wasn’t talking, cops said.
Early Sept. 2, a 24-year-old man walked into St. Luke’s Hospital with a gunshot wound to his left thigh, sources said. He told police he was at the Grant Houses in Manhattan when he “heard shots” and realized he’d been hit. Sources called him “highly uncooperative.”
With shootings in the city up 87 percent this year and murder mushrooming by 34 percent, the NYPD needs cooperating witnesses more than ever.
But they are coming up against a wall of stony silence. And cops and prosecutors point to myriad reasons.
Anti-crime units were mothballed on June 15 as Black Lives Matter and defund the police movements gained strength following the May 25 death of George Floyd at the hands of Minneapolis police. The NYPD’s unit was known for getting guns off the street, often with the help of street-level information.
“Whether you liked anti-crime teams or not, they often helped develop intel from prisoner debriefings and informants,” said Joseph Giacalone, a retired NYPD sergeant and professor at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice. “The loss of that intel will be resounding.”
The BLM movement, Floyd’s death, and similarly well-publicized incidents where suspects died in police custody have also all had a chilling effect on the public’s willingness to cooperate with cops.
“The community helps solve lots of different types of crimes,” Giacalone said. “When the public doesn’t trust the police, the information stops flowing. And that information is vital.”
Then there is the rising tidal wave of gang violence, where scores are settled on the streets and not a court of law. Gangbangers rarely talk.
“It’s a challenging time,” said NYPD spokesman Al Baker. “There’s an anti-snitch culture that’s taken root amid a level of violence that makes people reluctant to cooperate with our investigators. But we work every day with our partners in the city’s district attorneys’ offices to combat this culture and to solve crimes and help ensure public safety.”
Experts say recently enacted laws that endanger witnesses aren’t helping matters.
“The New York State Bail Reform Act has royally screwed up policing,” Sgt. Joseph Imperatrice, founder of Blue Lives Matter NYC, told The Post, saying the new discovery rules and judges letting criminals go have reversed “decades of progress.”
“Witnesses and confidential informants have little to no protection in regards to the new discovery rules,” he explained. (Reliable confidential informants, also known as CIs, are often paid).
“Old-school policing, where good officers would meet with people on the street to gain information, has dwindled,” he added. “Many witnesses know that their personal information will be available and possibly get out to the defense team.”
Under the new rules, prosecutors must give defense counsel the name and contact information of anyone with information relevant to a case within 15 days of arraignment — regardless of whether the person will testify at trial.
One seasoned Brooklyn detective said the new discovery rules have a lot to do with cops being stonewalled. “Witnesses ask if the shooter will get their name and they are told, ‘Probably yes,’ ” he said.
He said he used to have cooperating witnesses in about 75 percent of cases, but “now I would say we get witnesses in less than half of the cases.”
Bronx District Attorney Darcel Clark said, “Witness intimidation is a very real problem in The Bronx,” where shootings in the borough were up 73 percent this year.
Her office said it has encountered a lack of cooperation in non-fatal shootings for the past few years and many of the cases are “gang-related and retaliatory.” Clark has said people are not cooperating because they are afraid, or because they don’t trust the police.
The “lack of cooperation” has resulted in a poor 24 percent arrest rate in the borough’s 252 shootings, with collars in only 60 of the incidents, a spokeswoman said.
The office started a Witness Security Program in 2018, which has detectives tasked with relocating victims and witnesses, transporting them to and from court, and monitoring their safety. The hope was to make victims and witnesses “feel confident when they courageously agree to testify or cooperate.”
Crimefighters, meanwhile, are trying to adjust to the new landscape. Baker said criminal justice reforms “have required a massive retooling of NYPD practices.”
The new rules mandate that prosecutors disclose all grand-jury witness testimony to the defense if there’s an indictment. Previously, only a defendant’s testimony was disclosed. Another provision requires prosecutors to turn over names of all witnesses and persons interviewed relevant to a charge — along with the witnesses’ criminal histories. It also requires DAs to hand over all of a defendant’s statements to informants and undercover cops. This effectively unmasks snitches.
The New York State Bail Reform Act has royally screwed up policing. Witnesses and confidential informants have little to no protection.
Another measure allows the defense a motion to secure the crime scene. The NYPD said the practical effect is that a victim’s home or property or business is “rendered unusable for the pendency of a case, potentially dissuading cooperation.”
With witnesses silenced, gunplay has surged: For the year ending Sept. 6, compared to the same period last year, there’s been a 90 percent increase in shooting incidents and a 97 percent increase in shooting victims across New York City.
And silence is anything but golden. Only about 20 percent of shootings have ended with an arrest, according to a Post analysis of NYPD data through late August. That’s down from the typical 30-33 percent clearance rate.
The NYPD says it is doing what it can to gather street information.
“You try to get your confidential informants. Those come from briefings when you arrest someone,” a detective said. “Your CIs are huge in times like this.”
Recently, a CI called the detective to tell him he knew the ID of a suspect in a case where a kid was shot. “He told me what apartment the guy was in,” the investigator said. “He said he had just bought weed there and saw him. I let the detective on that case know. Next morning they got a search warrant and they got the guy.”
With fewer cooperative witnesses and CIs, finding surveillance video that captured a crime or suspect is extra important.
“You’ve gotta use every resource to resolve these issues,” he said.
But even video has limited value now in the age of COVID-19.
“Our shootings look like scenes out of the Wild West because everyone has a mask on,” said a detective supervisor.
After much outcry from cops and DAs, part of the 2019 criminal justice reforms were amended. The identity of 911 callers, and witnesses in cases involving gangs, organized crime, sex trafficking and sexual assaults, do not require the immediate turning over of information about witnesses, in the interest of their safety. These are “common-sense protections,” police said.
City and NYPD officials have alternately blamed the coronavirus, the pandemic-forced closure of many courts, and massive budget cuts for making cops feel like they are the ones in handcuffs. Still, as street-level cooperation evaporates, cops say they must soldier on.
“You can’t not do your job just because [witnesses] don’t want to cooperate,” said a high-ranking police source. “You have to do everything you possibly can. Once you’ve done everything you can, you close the book and put it on a shelf and hope they change their mind later.”
Said professor Giacalone: “When the public doesn’t help due to fear, retaliation or ‘no snitching rules,’ it endangers everyone in the community.”
— Additional reporting by Tina Moore and Larry Celona
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