OPINION: The walls of silence still protect too many criminals in Sarasota

·5 min read

It’s absolutely true.

Yes, there have been a few times when I’ve held back tears while writing a piece.

And, yes, I can remember the last time that happened.

It was in August 2020 while I was writing an editorial about Knowledge Sims, a 7-year-old boy in Columbia, South Carolina, who died when a hail of bullets riddled his home during a drive-by shooting.

I immediately knew one reason why I felt my eyes burn and tear up as I wrote.

It was because as I kept looking at the photo of Knowledge that the grieving family had provided the media –that of tiny, smiling Black child with short hair wearing a numbered jersey with a football tucked under his arm – one thought wouldn't leave my mind:

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Somewhere in a photo album in a box in Northeast Ohio, there was a picture of a small, smiling Black child with short hair wearing a football jersey – just like Knowledge – with a ball under his arm.

The boy in the photo? Me.

But I also knew the other reason why it was difficult to keep tears from forming as I typed: During the months following Knowledge’s death, no one in the community had stepped forward to provide police with any information on who had randomly killed him. And there was no reason to believe anyone ever would.

There was no reason to believe that the silence would be broken.

There was no reason to believe that any sense of justice would ultimately prevail in the aftermath of a death that was the very definition of senseless.

Sadly, we're not immune from that here.

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Sarasota is hardly immune from suffering the pain that silence – the reluctance to speak up amid a seemingly endless cycle of violence and other soul-sapping crime – continues to inflict on so many across this city.

But, my God, somehow this just has to change. Somehow this just has to end.

“I can tell you it still is a challenge,” Rex Troche, interim chief of the Sarasota Police Department, says when I ask about the silence that still empowers so many criminals to wreak misery and havoc in some of our city neighborhoods day after day after day.

“The notion is still out there that no one wants to ‘snitch,’” Troche says. “And it has kind of hurt our efforts to solve some crimes that have taken place.”

There’s no doubt, Troche says, that this blanket of silence has hindered the Sarasota Police from making progress on at least one notable case: the unsolved killing of 14-year-old Jabez Spann, whose body was found in 2019 – some two years after he was last seen alive in a local neighborhood.

“We do feel there’s information out there,” Troche says. “We do feel that there are people who know what happened. But they just haven’t come forward.”

However, what’s also damaging, Troche says, is how the suffocating atmosphere created by a fear of speaking up affects simple daily life in too many Sarasota neighborhoods.

He tells me about a recent incident in which two men got out of a car when they realized that officers wanted to talk to them, walked up to a nearby house and knocked on the door. When the homeowner answered the door, Troche says, the two men told her to leave, walked inside the home, locked the door behind her and went through the home’s back entrance in an attempt to elude police.

“When we asked (the homeowner) if she knew these guys, she said, 'No, not at all,'" Troche says. “So in effect they had just casually walked up to a random house, threw the homeowner out and used that person's house to try and avoid us. That’s how empowered they felt.”

When the Sarasota Police eventually caught one of the men, Troche says, the homeowner was asked if she wanted to press charges. Her answer was an immediate one:

No.

“I know there’s a feeling among some people in our community of, ‘We have to protect our young men – we have to stay silent,’” Troche says. “But really all we’re doing is simply enabling these individuals to keep causing harm to our neighborhoods. That’s the level of fear we have to keep working to reduce."

There’s no doubt that the Sarasota Police Department is making a real effort to break through the silence.

The department has beefed up its community response team, a group of citizen volunteers that admirably serves as a valuable liaison between area neighborhoods and the Sarasota Police. And Troche has also expanded the reach of the department's KOPS (Kids and Officers Promoting Solidarity) program, which provides after-hours activities for local teens.

But let's not be under any illusions about this.

Roger Brown
Roger Brown

Sooner or later, knocking down these barriers of silence that are killing – too often literally – our local neighborhoods comes down to someone being willing to speak out and stand up.

And someone else.

And someone else.

It can be done. It can change things.

In fact, the willingness to finally push fear aside and no longer stay silent has made a difference in the case of a little boy in Columbia, South Carolina, whose life tragically, violently, ended far too soon.

Last October – some 17 months after Knowledge Sims died inside a house sprayed by rounds of bullets – the Columbia Police Department arrested two men in connection with his death.

So maybe, at last, there will be justice for Knowledge.

But when will the silence ever be broken on behalf of so many others?

When will there be justice for them?

Opinions Editor Roger Brown can be reached at roger.brown@heraldtribune.com. Follow him on Twitter @RBrown_HTOpin.

This article originally appeared on Sarasota Herald-Tribune: The walls of silence protect too many criminals in Sarasota