Much has been said about the “stop snitching” culture, with tales of witnesses fearing retribution from criminals for speaking up in court, but what happens when the person saying “stop snitching” is not a criminal but a police officer?
That’s the reality for some citizens who have recorded cellphone video of police misconduct. They have expressed the same kind of fear of retaliation from police officers.
The need to speak out is evident because the cost of police brutality is crippling to taxpayers. Since 2011, Baltimore City taxpayers have paid nearly $6 million to settle 102 lawsuits alleging police brutality and other misconduct in Baltimore.
Yet incidents persist, often without disciplinary action: Last month, former Baltimore Detective Michael Wood tweeted his confessions of police-brutality incidents specifically targeting black people—including, but not limited to, corrupt policing; a police officer slapping an innocent woman for accidentally bumping into him; “punting” a handcuffed, facedown suspect in the face; and urinating and defecating on black suspects’ beds and clothes during raids.
But coming forward to report such incidents often doesn’t come with reward but, rather, with more pain and conflict. Here are some stories of what happened after individuals, one of them a police officer, witnessed police brutality and came forward:
The Death of Walter Scott (Witness: Feidin Santana)
Feidin Santana, 23, filmed part of the scene with Police Officer Michael Slager in the killing of Walter Scott in North Charleston, S.C., in April. He initially was hesitant to release the video for fear of retaliation and planned to delete the video, but he waited to see if Slager would tell the truth. When the police report differed greatly from what he witnessed, he gave the recording to the Scott family.
But he told MSNBC: “I felt that my life, with this information, might be in danger. I thought about erasing the video and just getting out of the community, you know Charleston, and living someplace else.”
In a subsequent interview with Matt Lauer, Santana said that he was “still afraid.” And expressed fear about it being public knowledge where he lived and worked.
The Death of Eric Garner (Witnesses: Ramsey Orta and Taisha Allen)
Ramsey Orta, who filmed the death of Eric Garner from a banned police choke hold in Staten Island, N.Y., in July 2014 was arrested a month after Garner’s death on charges of carrying an unregistered firearm. Orta claimed that police had been harassing him for the entire month and fishing for a reason to have him arrested. Orta had a criminal history and had previously been arrested on robbery and drug-related charges. His family raised more than $40,000 through a GoFundMe campaign for his bail, which was slightly over $16,000. But a New York City assistant district attorney held up his release until the family could prove that funding was not obtained through illegal sources.
Orta went on a hunger strike, fearing that guards at Rikers Island prison were trying to kill him by placing rat pellets in his food, a suspicion shared by 19 fellow inmates, who filed a lawsuit alleging that they were being poisoned after experiencing nausea, dizziness, severe vomiting and nosebleeds after a meal. New York City Department of Correction medical personnel confirmed that it was rat poison.
Filmmaker Soroya Soi Free created a film to draw attention to Orta, who was released April 10: “I was inspired by the heartache and pain that most of the entire metro area felt from Mr. Garner’s killing to Ramsey Orta’s getting arrested just because he wanted to do the right thing,” said Free. “I felt that it was the beginning of us all coming together.”
Taisha Allen, who also filmed the Garner choke hold with her cellphone, was arrested in February as she and her friend were walking through a park that is not open to the public in the evening. She alleged that an officer grabbed her, threw her over the fence and beat her with a baton on her back, leaving her with bruises and an injured arm. She claims that the officer said to her, “You’re the girl from the Eric Garner case.”
The Death of Anthony Baez (Witness: Daisy Boria)
At the criminal trial in 1996, Boria testified that several cops met in the precinct parking lot after Baez’s death to concoct a story clearing Officer Francis Livoti, who delivered the choke hold. Afterward, Boria said that she received death threats and claimed she wasn’t backed up by other cops on jobs. Her locker was checked for bombs on the hour. She eventually retired, moved to another state and said she continued to get harassing telephone calls.
The Death of Freddie Gray (Witness: Anonymous)
In Baltimore, the eyewitness who recorded the arrest of Freddie Gray in April with his cellphone wished to remain anonymous for fear of police retribution. Police Lt. Brian Rice, who is charged with manslaughter in the death of Gray, allegedly told the eyewitness that he would use his Taser if the witness did not stop filming. According to a Baltimore Sun report, another witness, Michelle Gross, quoted the officer threatening to use his Taser from extracts of the video that haven’t been broadcast yet.
And retaliation doesn’t just stop at individuals. Sometimes it can even be an entire city. As murders spiked after civil unrest following the death of Gray, arrests in the city were down by more than 50 percent, leaving citizens in Baltimore to wonder if police officers were taking a hands-off approach on purpose. Citizens had complained that some police stations were closed to the public after 7 p.m.
Baltimore Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake fired Police Commissioner Anthony W. Batts this week, saying in a press conference that he was a “distraction” and “it is with the utmost urgency that we get the crime surge under control.”
Council members in the city applauded the move for change, but many in the community say that the Police Department, and police departments in many parts of the country, need a systemic overhaul, not just new faces.