September 28, 2013

Snitching among slaves

Professor Andrea Dennis has posted this exploration of the role of Black informants during slavery: A Snitch in Time: An Historical Sketch of Black Informing During Slavery. It's her second piece on informants--the first one addressed juvenile snitching in the war on drugs. Here's the abstract:

This article sketches the socio-legal creation, use, and regulation of informants in the Black community during slavery and the Black community's response at that time. Despite potentially creating benefits such as crime control and sentence reduction, some Blacks today are convinced that cooperation with government investigations and prosecutions should be avoided. One factor contributing to this perspective is America's reliance on Black informants to police and socially control Blacks during slavery, the Civil Rights Movement, and the Wars on Drugs, Crime and Gangs. Notwithstanding this historical justification for non-cooperation, only a few informant law and policy scholars have examined closely the Black community's relationship with informing. Furthermore, even among this small group of works, noticeably absent are historical explorations of Black America's experience with informing during slavery. Drawn using a variety of primary and secondary historical and legal sources, this article develops a snapshot of the past revealing many similarities between the Black experience with informing both while enslaved and in contemporary times. Consideration of these resemblances during present debate on the topic may help to facilitate nuanced conversation as to whether and how the modern Black community and government should approach using informants in current times.

This is an important piece of history. As Dennis points out, there has been an underappreciated trajectory from slave informants to the FBI snitches planted in civil rights organizations, to the "Stop Snitching" movement in urban neighborhoods. For a helpful articulation of the relationship between that trajectory and hip hop's glorification of "stop snitching," see Professor Mark Lamont Hill's piece "A Breakdown of the Stop Snitching Movement."

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February 22, 2012

Professor Bret Asbury on "stop snitching"

The Oregon Law Review has published an article by Professor Bret Asbury entitled "Anti-Snitching Norms and Community Loyalty," 89 Or. L. Rev. 1257 (2011). Here's the abstract:

In recent years a troubling trend has emerged within a number of poor, black communities. Termed "Stop Snitching," it has manifested itself in the form community members' refusing to cooperate with police investigations of community crimes. The result of this widespread refusal to cooperate has been a reduced number of crimes solved within these communities; without cooperating witnesses, it has proven exceedingly difficult for police to make criminal cases.

Reactions to Stop Snitching have taken two predominant forms, both of which are mistaken. The first, most often attributed to law enforcement officers, is contempt. To them, community members who do not assist in criminal investigations are violating the ethical obligation all citizens have to aid in the arrest and prosecution of criminal actors. The second reaction to Stop Snitching, most often coming from citizens largely isolated from poor, black communities, is confusion. Assuming the police to be allies of the citizenry, they wonder why anyone would even entertain the notion of refusing to help the police solve community crimes.

This Article suggests a different understanding of Stop Snitching, arguing that poor, black community members' refusal to cooperate with police investigations should be viewed as neither ethically condemnable nor inexplicable, but rather as a natural extension of the innate human aspiration to be loyal. It does so by situating Stop Snitching within the existing literature on loyalty and asserting that the refusal to cooperate with police represents a privileging of community loyalty over loyalty to the state. Throughout the various strata of contemporary society, such privileging of the familiar over the remote is common, and Stop Snitching is neither puzzling nor reprehensible when viewed as a manifestation of this manner of prioritization.

Once Stop Snitching is understood as a reflection of the weak loyalty bonds that exist between police officers and the poor, black communities they serve, it becomes clear that it can only be curtailed and ultimately eliminated through police efforts aimed at strengthening these bonds. This Article closes with a discussion of the steps police should take in order to succeed in this regard.

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January 19, 2011

'Stop Snitching' in the UK

Since we have a guest from the UK, this story seemed particularly timely. A 'stop snitching' pamphlet was distributed in a largely black London housing project after a murder. The event has triggered a debate very similar to the debate in the U.S. over police-community relations. From the BBC story: Peckham murder 'snitch' leaflet: what has changed?:

"No one likes a rat," [the pamphlets] stated. "Remember the police are not your friend. Don't be deceived by promises of anonymity, protection and rewards. They will say and do anything to make you snitch, then destroy your life." It concluded: "Be smart. Don't snitch." The flyers were linked to a website, entitled 'Stop Snitching'. It is unclear whether the site is linked to a campaign of the same name launched in 2004, in the troubled US city of Baltimore. ...

Claudia Webbe, chairwoman of the public panel set up to scrutinise [the police's] work, said: "People on the estate were very angry and defiant after the leaflets - but for some it added to the fear. It tapped into suspicions some have long believed." One Southwark councillor has claimed that the leaflets actually had the effect of increasing the number of calls to police - something the Metropolitan Police is yet to comment on. And Ms Webbe thinks the estate's reaction since the leafleting campaign is symptomatic of how relationships between police and the black community have improved. She said: "In 1998 not a single person would have spoken to police after a murder like this."

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October 19, 2010

"America's most successful stop snitchin' campaign"

Another excellent piece from journalist Radley Balko at Reason.com-- American's Most Successful Stop Snitchin' Campaign. This piece elaborates on the subject of Eric Miller's last post, chronicling the retaliation and punishment openly inflicted on police officers who have broken the code of silence and reported official wrongdoing in cities such as Kansas City, New York, and Albuquerque. From the article:

In his book Breaking Rank: A Top Cop's Expose of the Dark Side of American Policing, former Seattle Police Chief Norm Stamper explains the implicit threats that make the Blue Wall so successful:

"You have to rely on your fellow officers to back you. A cop with a reputation as a snitch is one vulnerable police officer, likely to find his peers slow to respond to requests for backup-if they show up at all. A snitch is subject to social snubbing. Or malicious mischief, or sabotage...The peer pressure is childish and churlish, but it's real. Few cops can stand up to it."

Which makes it all the more important that police administrators and political leaders support and protect the cops who do. The most disturbing aspect of these stories is not that there are bad cops in Kansas City, New York, and Albuquerque. It's not even that other cops covered for them, or that police unions have institutionalized the protection of bad cops. The most disturbing part of these cases is that the cover-up and retaliation extend all the way to the top of the chain of command--and that so far there has been no action, or even condemnation, from the elected officials who are supposed to hold police leaders accountable.

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July 16, 2010

"It's a matter of trust": Philly Inquirer editorial on citizen cooperation

From today's Philadelphia Inquirer:

It's no wonder that residents of some crime-infested Philadelphia neighborhoods are afraid to "snitch." How can they expect protection from police who are in bed with drug dealers? All the assurance in the world that three officers, indicted for scheming to steal a drug dealer's heroin and sell it, aren't representative of most Philadelphia cops leaves open the question of whether there are others like them. . . . A necessary ingredient in effectively fighting crime is the trust of the community officers are trying to protect. You can't have that when people believe cops are just crooks, too.

Rest of editorial here.

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June 15, 2010

"Three will set you free"

A carwash attendant explained to me that this was the saying in his old neighborhood (he wouldn't say where he was from). It means that if you are charged with a felony but can give the government information about three other people, they will "set you free."

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June 08, 2010

MySpace anti-snitch comment treated as threat

An appellate court in Maryland has ruled that a comment on the defendant's girlfriend's MySpace page was properly admitted at his murder trial. The comment read: "Free Boozy!!! Just remember snitches get stitches!! U know who you are!!" Daily Record story here. The comment was proffered by the government to explain why a key witness had failed to identify the defendant at a previous trial. The decision is significant for a number of reasons. For example, it shows how comments made on social networking sites by friends and family may be admissible against defendants. It also elevates common phrases such as "snitches get stitches" and "no snitching" and potentially even rap lyrics to the status of specific threat. For a more general discussion of the use of rap lyrics against defendants, see this post: ""Stop Snitching" rap song on YouTube leads to convictions."

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May 24, 2010

Cycling world grapples with "snitching"

Lest you think that "stop snitching" is confined to inner-city neighborhoods plagued by drug violence, check out this San Diego Union Tribune story, "Whistle Blower or Snitch?", in which the sports world reacts to Floyd Landis's doping allegations against other cyclists. The New York Times a few days ago reported that Landis "has agreed to cooperate with authorities in the United States." The debate is raging over whether Landis did a good thing (exposed illegal doping) or a shabby thing (sold out his colleagues to evade responsibility for his own wrongdoing).

Although criminal charges have not been filed against Landis, he may still benefit in that regard. Offenders routinely cooperate in order to stave off criminal charges. Indeed, according to renowned white collar defense attorney Kenneth Mann, one of the biggest benefits of cooperation is the ability to shape the pre-indictment process. Landis's new status as potential witness rather than target may be one of his biggest gains.

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April 26, 2010

Snitches killing snitches

Here's a story of violent irony. Last Friday, two young New Jersey women were sentenced for participating in the execution of a friend--Latyria Nealy--because the gang to which all three women belonged thought Nealy might be snitching. Having lured Nealy to her death on suspicion of being a snitch, one of the women, Nikki Moore, then became an informant herself, providing "significant, extensive, and comprehensive" cooperation which earned her two years off her 12-year sentence. The other defendant apparently also cooperated in some fashion but did not get any credit. Story here: Pair Sentenced in Gang Execution: Asbury Park Woman Killed for being a 'Snitch'. The irony, of course, lies in the cycle of violence in which people work off their sentences for killing suspected informants by becoming informants themselves. The deeper challenge is helping young people surrounded by crime who are caught in the middle--between violent gangs that threaten those who talk, and a criminal system that punishes those who remain silent.

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January 14, 2010

New developments in federal witness intimidation legislation

The Philadelphia Inquirer's witness intimidation series (previous post here) triggered a congressional hearing. You can read the testimonies here, including criticism of the series for exaggerating the extent of the problem. See testimony of Michael Coard. Senator Arlen Specter (D-PA) subsequently called for a law that would make witness intimidation a federal offense; witness intimidation is already a state crime. Story here. In a similar development, Rep. Elijah Cummings (D-MD) introduced the Witness Security and Protection Grant Program Act of 2009, to provide assistance to state and local witness protection programs. Press release here. More indications that the law of informant use will look very different a few years from now.

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October 12, 2009

"Snitch and you're a dead man"

Journalism professor and author John Fountain weighs in on the "stop snitching" phenomenon in the Chicago Tribune. He describes urban neighborhoods permeated with fear and insecurity, and takes issue with criticism of residents who are unwilling to talk to police. He writes:

In my experience growing up in an impoverished Chicago community like those under siege, it boils down to an issue of trust. And many who live in the city's most murderous neighborhoods -- who have also witnessed police and political corruption and a trail of broken promises -- simply don't trust the authorities enough to come forward. By doing so, they could be laying their lives on the line. It isn't that people don't want to tell. They do. And it isn't that they aren't concerned about their neighborhoods. They are. But to come forward is to risk everything, even in a world where "safety" is always relative.

Fountain's piece highlights a central reason that the public debate over criminal justice is so fractured: people and groups have radically different experiences and expectations. In neighborhoods where police are perceived as responsive, where people do not worry constantly about their personal security, where the legal system seems fair and effective, it makes eminent sense to talk to police. In neighborhoods where none of this is true, it might make sense not to. Such differences in perception show up quite publicly in debates over "stop snitching," but they quietly affect all aspects of the criminal process, from the way people relate to defense lawyers to the kinds of punishment people consider to be fair. In my view, this is one of the reasons that the "stop snitching" debate is valuable: it encourages the public exposure of some very different legal realities.

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