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Bill Maxwell

Code of silence poisons case

“Crist throws McCabe under the bus." An angry reader posted this on Tampabay.com on Thursday.

This reader, like dozens of others, was reacting to Gov. Charlie Crist's order for the Florida Department of Law Enforcement to review Pinellas-Pasco State Attorney Bernie McCabe's investigation clearing St. Petersburg police Officer Terrence Nemeth in the June 7 shooting death of Javon Dawson, 17, at a graduation party.

I would not go so far as to say the governor threw McCabe under the bus. I would say, though, that a serious consequence of Crist's decision is that, at the very least, it has undermined McCabe's authority.

"It was a sensitive case, and I think it's important to always take a second look," Crist told reporters. "I think the state attorney did a great job, but I want to make sure."

Crist is talking out of both sides of his mouth, as he often does. This is the first time a Florida governor has ordered a review of a state attorney's report in such a case. Does this mean that Crist will order similar reviews whenever, or if, other white police officers shoot black civilians?

I hope that Crist's action is an earnest search for the truth rather than an act of political calculus.

On the heels of Crist's unprecedented order, NAACP president Norm Brown said he will ask the U.S. Justice Department to review the case. Many blacks had been complaining that the NAACP had been AWOL in the controversy. Is Brown trying to save face?

"If you are black and you grew up in most towns in the United States," he said, "this kind of thing happens all the time, and the question always is: Was the shooting justified? All we want is someone outside, not in the local law enforcement loop, to review what was done and see if they come to the same conclusion."

McCabe is right to be disappointed that the governor ordered a review of the report, which cites physical evidence — DNA and gunshot residue — and a handful of eyewitness accounts in justifying Nemeth's action.

Furthermore, in trying to allay fears that his agency's findings were tainted in any way, McCabe employed a private laboratory to conduct additional and more complex tests of a DNA sample on the gun that was found beside Dawson's body. The lab confirmed the findings of McCabe's report.

"It's all adds up," McCabe said. "If you don't think that's compelling, I'm sorry."

While many ordinary citizens, civic leaders and elected officials, including Mayor Rick Baker, have expressed confidence in the thoroughness of the state attorney's report, I have yet to hear anyone publicly nail the crux of the problem in this case, which continues to be debated and continues to grow as another unnecessary and destructive racial flash point.

Here is what Kristen Perezluha, an FDLE spokeswoman, told the St. Petersburg Times about Crist's order: "It's a second look at what the state attorney found. We are going to make sure that it was thorough, that everyone that needed to be interviewed was interviewed."

Perezluha, like other naive outsiders, apparently is unaware of the deep code of silence among blacks, especially the young, in St. Petersburg. Talking to the police — "The Man" — is the ultimate betrayal.

The ugly fact is that "everyone that needed to be interviewed" was not interviewed because he or she refused to be interviewed.

The result is that effective law enforcement has been stymied, and the judicial process may have been hurt, perhaps permanently. (Not to mention the blow to improving race relations.)

From the beginning, none of the approximately 250 teens at the scene of the shooting would talk to the police. The few who eventually did were chosen by the lawyer of the dead teen's family and by the Uhurus. These witnesses — who gave conflicting testimony, according to the state attorney's report — refused to talk directly to police investigators.

Although the code of silence was at work, Uhuru leader Omali Yeshitela said: "Most of the people we are talking about are children, young people who are traumatized by the experience, from seeing their friend gunned down before them. I know they are afraid of the police. … It's not a question of somebody trying to keep witnesses from the police. It's a question of youngsters having been traumatized by this experience and the same forces are now chasing them, looking at them."

Hogwash. The silence, the no-snitch culture is old and calculated and ominous. And, more practically, it is directly responsible for the continued inconvenience and expense of this investigation.

Sooner rather than later, St. Petersburg's black community needs to undergo some serious introspection. It needs to decide if it ever wants to become a member of what Mayor Baker used to refer to as "the seamless city."

Unfortunately, the code of silence and the refusal to cooperate with law enforcement will forever keep black St. Petersburg separated from the rest of the city. I guarantee it.

Code of silence poisons case 08/16/08 [Last modified: Tuesday, August 19, 2008 1:36pm]

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