Snitching: Myth or Reality?

Jul. 15, 2012 / By

Commentary,  Unathi Udo

“Stop Snitching” is that a slogan that is pushed by criminals on the streets and on Wall Street. It refers to the effort to intimidate witnesses to prevent them from cooperating with police.  It’s also a way for individuals to say something catchy to enhance their street credibility.

There is a notion that folks in the black community don’t snitch and won’t come forward to report crimes. But it’s actually not true. It’s a myth.

Snitching happens all the time. In fact, it happens so much that the local justice system doesn’t keep statistics on how many people are going to jail because of testimony of snitches. While at the same time almost everyone in jail will tell you they got there because someone told on them.

Today, “stop snitching” is a sad cliche. Nowadays, it seems that anyone who talks to the police is labeled a snitch.

When I was younger I knew of a guy that would get arrested for all kinds of things — selling guns or dope — but he would always be released. Eventually it came to light that he was an informant. I thought it was crazy, because he grew up with the folks that he ended up snitching on.

I’ve served time in a federal penitentiary and I’ve heard all kinds of war-stories from my fellow inmates about how they were “ratted out” by someone in their circle – in some cases by their very own family members.

I met a dude I was real cool with.  He was out of L.A., serving time for a cocaine case in Florida. He told me his cousin was the one that gave him up to avoid jail time. It divided the family.

Snitching was also a factor to those inmates doing time for “white-collar” crimes. They also claimed to have been told on by their partners.

I met an accountant that was out of Montana. He told me that he and one of his colleagues were both embezzling money. The colleague ended up testifying against him, fingering him as the mastermind.

In prison you can be what you want to be — a lot of dudes lie. But I would say about 85-90 percent of the folks locked up said they were snitched on.

In reality, we really don’t know how many people are getting locked up due to snitching because the numbers aren’t kept by local authorities.

Sarah Lawrence, Director of Policy Analysis with UC Berkeley’s Warren Institute on Law and Social Policy, in an email interview wrote that, “To her knowledge that data is not collected, not at a state level and not at a county level for the counties that she is familiar with.”

Lawrence referenced a 2007 congressional hearing on Confidential Informant practices, part of which touched on the fact that these data are not collected.

At the hearing, Loyola (Los Angeles) Professor of Law and author of the book “Snitching”, Alexandra Natapoff, testified that: “Even the officials at the center of the criminal process – police and prosecutors – do not know the extent of the use of informants in their own jurisdictions, how many crimes informants help to solve, or how many crimes they get away with.  Most state and local jurisdictions have no mechanisms for counting, evaluating or regulating the ways that informants are used.  To the extent such data exists, it is not public.”

“A neighborhood with many criminal informants is a more dangerous and less safe place to live in,” concluded Natapoff.

Paul Mulligan of the public defender’s office is closely involved with many court cases in Contra Costa County.  In an interview conducted via email Mulligan confirmed the lack of informant tracking. “Our office does not keep track of the number of convictions which result from information received from either informants,  or from co-defendants who decide to testify against another defendant,” wrote Mulligan.

But Mulligan did state that, “Drug prosecutions often involve informants and on homicide cases, it is not uncommon for a co-defendant to testify against his or her co-defendant(s). Usually this is done when the witness is not the actual shooter, but, rather was a lower level participant in the crime, or assisted the shooter after the crime.”

While this plays out in the court room, it doesn’t have to play out in our community. The code of snitching should be reserved for those who have pledged their life to the streets. It should not apply to law-abiding, tax paying citizens. They should not be subjected to the code of the streets.

A young boy or girl who is being picked on and bullied for whatever reason should feel free to notify a trusted authority figure, before the situation escalates without being in fear of persecution from their peers or society. In my opinion, the whole stop-snitching campaign is over saturated, to the point that today many young people believe that telling the truth about something is tantamount to snitching.

The fact is, real snitching is when a criminal is caught for a crime he committed and provides information about his crime partners to the law in order to receive a lighter sentence, or when a group of individuals who commit a crime get caught, and then tell on the remaining members of their party who escaped capture. That’s snitching. But if a person organizes a neighborhood watch program so they can feel secure coming home and provide a safe haven for their kids to play outside?  That’s not snitching.

I understand that we as African-Americans and other minorities have a bruised relationship with the police. There is a lack of trust that stems from police brutality, slow response times and a lack of police patrols, just to name a few issues. But even law enforcement itself, the corporate world and shady elected officials have all adhered to the slogan of “stop snitching.”

This is a sensitive subject, but one that needs clarity and truth so that the propaganda and rhetoric won’t perpetuate. If a little five year old girl who is innocently playing in her room is shot and killed by a stray bullets rattling through her home, and people in the community know who did it and know that person’s family, then we need to be able to go to that family to demand they have their loved one turn themselves into police without repercussions from the streets and the family should oblige. That’s not snitching that’s a community working together to get justice. This kind of action is a partial solution, but one that requires a high level of structure and self-reliance in our community.

It’s sad and unfortunate that such misguided notions of what it means to be a snitch have taken hold. Two things are certain however: One, this paradigm in our communities has to change; and two, “stop snitching” is a mantra for crooks, not everyone.

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