Rules for Snitching

Not cooperating with the police is standard in too many communities -- but there are exceptions, say researchers who spent three years talking with kids in Philadelphia's toughest neighborhoods.

 
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While campaigning to be mayor of Philadelphia in 2007, Michael Nutter said that there was a war in the streets of the city and promised that he would declare a "crime emergency" on his first day in office. His claim was more than the typical politician's polemic: The chance of a black man meeting a violent death in his city is greater than the chance of a U.S. soldier dying on the battlefields of Iraq.

In the spring of 2008, a year after now-Mayor Nutter and his new police commissioner moved into their offices, our research team embarked on a project to interview 150 black, Latino and white Philadelphians, male and female, delinquent and nondelinquent, ranging in age from 15 to 24 years old. We wanted to hear their views on policing, violence and crime, and what they do to stay safe on Philadelphia's streets.

We discovered that there's a crisis of trust in the City of Brotherly Love. "Stop snitching" T-shirts first popped up around 2002. The earliest versions showed images of red stop signs with the word "snitching" beneath. Another shirt featured yellow smiley faces (the '70s ones now resurrected as emoticons), but the faces had zippers instead of parenthetical mouths. But as we learned, the rules about snitching are broad and flexible.

District attorneys and the police blamed the subversive "stop snitching" subculture on the usual suspect: gangster rap's glamorization of violence. Kids coming up in Philadelphia's neighborhoods, though, tell us the politicians and the cops have it backward: Rap music's lyrics do not create truth; they are mirrors reflecting the ugly truth for the rest of the world to see. "Change the reality," one 19-year-old college freshman, born and raised in the city's notorious Badlands neighborhoods of Kensington, told us, "and then the culture changes, not the other way around."

"Stop snitching" is a community's submission to the "reality" of an entrenched drug economy that is, like it or not, one of the primary employers of its young men. It is also the toxic by-product of decades of mass incarceration and overpolicing of segregated neighborhoods in the era of stop-and-frisk.

"Stop snitching" doesn't mean never talking to the cops, either. You can call the police about a sexual assault, child molestation, if someone beats a woman or child, in the case of shootings or homicides, or about harm to family members, as long as the violence is unconnected to your own illicit business activities.

Young people told us that witnesses are different from snitches: A witness comes forward to help, while a snitch goes to the cops to do the dirty work of hurting somebody else. The problem is that even DAs and cops know that finding a citizen in a position to truly help is no simple feat. There are people who do come forward despite the grave risks. Other witnesses come forward to help themselves, not their neighbors: They want a reduced sentence, to get paid or to put a rival out of business.

Another reason young people say you don't snitch is that calling the police is futile. Even the police admit that clearing a corner of dealers means a replacement crew is out there within two hours. Worse, many kids tell us that bringing in cops is like putting gasoline on a fire: Things just burn out of control.

They say the cops are brutal but oddly powerless, an occupying force patrolling enemy streets. The corner boys may be vicious and deadly, but at least they're from the neighborhood. Most people prefer their own tyrants to foreign invaders.