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.

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.