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.

“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.

So youths feel caught between warring factions, unsure whether making alliances with either will improve their lives. A young man named David, who was not involved in hustling but had many friends and peers on the streets, put it this way: “I don’t support either side of it. I think it’s like kind of a broken dichotomy, like you have two choices and both of them suck, and it has to do with the way things are set up in this city and in this world. But, so, we need to start looking at other options.”

The only thing everyone agrees about is this: Philadelphia’s street wars aren’t over.

Maria Kefalas is director of the Richard Johnson Center for Anti-Violence at Saint Joseph’s University and founder of Philadelphia Youth Solutions Project. Patrick Carr (Rutgers University-New Brunswick), Susan Clampet-Lundquist (Saint Joseph’s University-Philadelphia) and Kefalas lead the Stop Snitching Research Project, funded through an Edward R. Byrne Memorial Grant from the Department of Justice, named after a New York City police officer killed in the line of duty while protecting a witness.

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