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Friday, October 15, 2010

Police as Snitches

NPR’s "This American Life" recently posted an interview with NYPD police officer Adrian Schoolcraft, who secretly recorded conversations at Bedford-Stuyvesant's 81st Precinct. Schoolcraft’s recordings were originally published by the Village Voice, and became the subject of a five-part expose of the Bed-Stuy police's practices. The Schoolcraft tapes revealed the extent to which modern policing is driven by a series of arrest quotas rather than increasing the quality of life for the residents of Bedford-Stuyvesant. Perversely, the 81st Precinct's overzealous attention to the reported crime figures drove up arrests for minor crime, at the same time as driving down charges for major crimes. Put differently, the emphasis was on both the number of arrests made (busywork for the police) while at the same time proclaiming that serious crime rates were down (so reclassifying serious crimes as less severe, so as to undercut fear of crime).

Schoolcraft is a snitch: he broke the police's own stop snitching code, the Blue Line of silence. Rarely mentioned in the snitching debates is that the police have, and celebrate, their own stop snitching code, one that is expressly designed to hide illegal or quasi-illegal activities from public scrutiny. The Blue Line is in some ways disturbingly thick: it serves not only to separate but also to distance the police from the rest of the public. The Blue Line separates the police from the public by reinforcing negative police stereotypes of the people with whom they interact on a daily basis. The Blue Line distances the police from the public by turning a blind eye to forcible and arbitrary displays of authority, of the sort that, as demonstrated in the "This American Life" interview, delegitimize the police in the eyes of the public.

Dr. Rick Frei's "Snitching Study," which I blogged about earlier in the week, produced an interesting statistic that is relevant here: 60% of interviewees considered it permissible to snitch on cops. That statistic is borne out, anecdotally at least, by Schoolcraft's experience: "This American Life" revealed that Bed-Stuy residents were willing to tell him who were the cops engaged in improper policing practices. Of course, the Blue Line at the same time discounts and disvalues citizen reports on the police, while possessing the information that confirms such reports, and while enforcing police refusal to snitch on other police officers.

The impact of Schoolcraft's revelations should not be understated. First, they bolster some statistical data from a report entitled "New York City Police Department's 'Stop and Frisk' Practices," also known as the Spitzer Report. That report found that only 61 percent of police stops cited constitutionally adequate grounds for a stop-and-frisk, with 39 percent adducing constitutionally insufficient or indeterminate grounds. Schoolcraft's tapes suggest that the police engaged in a stop first, find probable cause (or reasonable suspicion) later policy, applied randomly to the Bed-Stuy residents.

A second feature of Schoolcraft's recording campaign is to note that while police have become increasingly fond of police-initiated recordings, e.g., car mounted cameras, they have become increasingly suspicious of citizen-initiated recordings, using mobile phones. Here again, the citizenry undermine and question police authoritarianism through the use of camera phones to challenge, or snitch on, police-citizen encounters. There is currently a lawsuit pending in Maryland, where an officer is suing for invasion of privacy a citizen who recorded a police stop and snitched.

The authoritarian element underlying both policing by numbers and the Blue Line of silence is precisely the authoritarianism necessary for the sort of policing that relies upon snitches and confessions. Schoolcraft, and other "Good Cops" like him (to use the title of a book by David Harris) do not engage in forcible policing, but consensual policing. They do not need to use their cuffs to establish their authority. Instead of driving away all sources of information except those willing to talk for a price, policing could develop relations by engaging with the people they police. Schoolcraft's recording suggests that consensual policing has fallen victim to policing by numbers, and at least in the 81st Precinct, officers were encouraged to cut corners but not snitch on each other at the same time they demand that the citizens they mistreated act as snitches.