Monday, March 19, 2007

Talking Snitches in Atlanta

As promised, here's a guest post from Rev. Alan Bean of Tulia Friends of Justice describing an invitation only gathering of activists in Atlanta, GA sponsored by the ACLU discussing snitching abuses by law enforcement. Pictured at left is forum participant Alexandra Natapoff, a law professor at Loyola (CA) who is perhaps my favorite legal thinker on the subject.

The ACLU’s Drug Law Reform Project called their Atlanta roundtable event, “Undercover, Unreliable and Unaddressed: Reconsidering the Use of Informants in Drug Law Enforcement.” The invitation-only gathering was a kind of testing-the-waters experiment bringing together a representative sample of academics, media people, grassroots organizers, Hip Hop artists, and people who have been personally violated by dishonest informants.

“Law is just one piece of the puzzle,” Loyola law professor Alexandra Natapoff told us, “what needs to be changed is social tolerance for unfair practices.”

This statement was reinforced by Anjuli Verma’s insightful report on a series of focus groups conducted in Texas earlier this year by a high-profile research organization. If the broad cross section of people questioned in this small study is anything to go by (and I suspect it is) Mainstream America isn’t too worried about the criminal justice system in general or the abuse of informant “snitch” testimony in particular. It is generally assumed that appropriate checks and balances are in play and that most “snitches” are small fish used to catch big fish.

None of this is true, of course. In the drug war, most informants are relatively big fish ratting on their small fish associates, girl friends and family members. Ed Burns, an ex-cop and school teacher who now produces HBO’s inner city drama The Wire, remarked that “there are very strict rules about using informants and they are broken 99% of the time.” Dr. Natapoff cited a report by the California ACLU suggesting that most police departments in the Golden State have no policies to violate.

My impressions of the Atlanta gathering were primarily shaped by a one-hour break out session in which ten Type-A Alpha males told each other what it was all about. While our soft spoken moderator, Graham Boyd, tried to steer us back to the informant issue, we insisted on talking about what I call “the prison problem”.

Jack Cole, Executive Director of Law Enforcement Against Prohibition, laid out the familiar but shocking facts. Most Western democracies have incarceration rates in the 100-200 per 100,000 people range. In America , by contrast, 717 of every 100,000 white males are currently behind bars—and that’s just the white guys. At the depths of Apartheid hell in South Africa , 851 black males were incarcerated. In America , 4,919 black males per 100,000 are currently behind bars.

The question was why?

Black participants wanted to talk about “white supremacy” and “white hegemony”. Marc Lamont Hill, professor of Urban Education and American Studies at Temple University with a machine-gun, rat-a-tat speaking style, put it bluntly: “I don’t want to assume that the law could be anything but malevolent [toward black defendants] given the influence of white supremacy. All the spaces that were open at one time are being controlled. In the hood, there are police officers on every single corner.”

Jack Cole, a retired police officer, blamed it on drug prohibition: “We spend so much money on the war on drugs, we don’t have any money to help people.”

The Wire producer Ed Burns acknowledged the relevance of racism and the drug war but was inclined to blame mass incarceration on the loss of manufacturing jobs. “When the jobs disappear, the drugs come,” he said. “We are doing all of this because there are no jobs.”

In other words, the Atlanta gathering brought together bold, well-informed people with strong opinions. That’s what it was designed to do, and the differences in perspective were as invigorating as they were enlightening. However, as the DLRP’s focus groups and Bill Cosby’s well-publicized rants suggest, there is a wide slice of black America (the people who have benefited the most from the Civil Rights Movement) who currently have no particular problem with the drug war, mandatory minimum sentences or the abuse of informant testimony. These people are concerned about the mass incarceration of black males, but there is a tendency to shrug and say, “You the crime, you do the time.”

If reformers want to change the minds and hearts of Middle America we need black reformers to frame and deliver the message to a black, middle class audience. If we can’t convince Bill Cosby and Oprah Winfrey we don’t have a prayer with the white mainstream.

As I suggested in my PowerPoint presentation, we need to discover and publicize an avalanche of Tulia-style criminal justice horror stories. The recent exoneration of Ann Colomb and her three sons after they had been convicted on the basis of perjured inmate informant testimony is a story still waiting to be told. Financing a massive and coordinated story-telling coalition (supposing we can find the resolve to work together) will require millions of dollars in funding—and that will mean converting a long list of high profile people to our reform gospel.

There was a widespread consensus at the Atlanta gathering that we need to change the national narrative—a daunting task, to be sure. As Ed Burns put it, “When you’re going up against mythology you’re swatting smoke. Where does the responsibility for changing all of this begin?”

And we are going up against mythology; in particular, the well-entrenched myth that efforts to help poor people create nothing but dependency and a false sense of entitlement. It is widely believed that locking up the poor, the drug addicted, the mentally ill and the ignorant will somehow teach them a lesson. And even if there is no deterrent effect, mainstream America believes that mass incarceration makes the streets safer.

As professor Natapoff suggests, the America mainstream tolerates unfair practices so long as they are believed to enhance public safety. Until we can change that impression we will get nowhere.

The Atlanta gathering probably raised more questions than it answered—but that was what it was designed to do. A follow-up gathering is needed—and soon. This time I would like to hear Alexandra Natapoff, Ed Burns and at least one black representative from the Civil Rights and Hip Hop generations lay out their visions for the way ahead in hour-long presentations followed by vigorous small group discussions. As Dr. Natapoff told us in Atlanta , “This is just the beginning of the debate.”

- Alan Bean

20 comments:

Anonymous said...

I'm surprised they didn't invite you, Grits. You've done a ton of stuff on this.

Anonymous said...

Gee, this is a load of crap:

“I don’t want to assume that the law could be anything but malevolent [toward black defendants] given the influence of white supremacy."

To me this sounds like juvenile, ivory-tower stuff. If you assume the system can never be fair toward blacks, that inevitably becomes true because no one can even envision an alternative. Assume differently, and maybe there's a chance for change. No one can achieve any outcome they cannot visualize.

Besides, class, not race, generates most unfair outcomes in the criminal justice system: Ask OJ Simpson!

AlanBean said...

I grant youm the comment sounds extreme. But just consider that, say, for white males aged 25-29, the incarceration rate in the United States is just over 1,000 per 100,000 population (a bizarre figure, to be sure). For black males of similar age the rate is over 8,000 per 100,000. And that's the national figure--in Texas and Louisiana the gap is much worse than that. If anyone has any stats that adjust these figures for social status and income as well as age, race and gender I'd like to see them. My guess, however, is that, if you controlled for social status, the black-white gap would increase substantially. Social class is clearly a factor; but race plays a major role as well. Unless you assume that young black males are biologically predisposed to criminal behavior (an assumption I reject) then we must search for other explanations. Polemical appeals to "white supremacy" and "white hegemony" can be simplistic, and they have little persuasive power with white folks or even most high-status blacks. But this language resonates in many segments of the Hip-Hop generation.

Gritsforbreakfast said...

@ anonymous1, thanks a lot, but it's okay: One should never aspire to go where you're not welcome.

@ anonymous2, I guess I partially agree with you. Certainly class is a huge part of the problem, and I agree that assuming things can never change virtually guarantees they won't. But when you see incidents like the Paris, TX verdicts reported in the Chicago Tribune recently, it's hard not to conclude that race still plays a significant role in creating disparities in the criminal justice system.

That said, @ Alan, I have to say if all the "white supremacy" rhetoric is what resonates with the Hip Hop crowd, that explains why Hip Hop has been utterly unsuccessful at galvanizing a youth political agenda despite its wide popularity. After all, far and away most people who buy hip hop records are white. best,

AlanBean said...

Most of the people using "white supremacy rhetoric" are highly critical of Hip-Hop culture, even though they are part of it. These issues are highly complex and deserve careful attention from folks on both sides of the debate. Personally, I resent the implication that my skin color makes me an oppressor. But I remind myself that resentments fester on both sides of this issue. The only solution is open and unrestricted dialogue, and the Atlanta meeting marked an important beginning. "Grits" definitely needs to be part of this unfolding discussion; regular readers of this blog realize that nobody in America knows more about the use and abuse of informant testimony.

800 pound gorilla said...

Whether it's sectarian violence or use of arbitrarily banned drugs targeting specific social classes it's always been about the economy. Christians weren't genocidal about Muslims when Yugoslavia had good jobs available for working class people. What happened to the Yugo has more to do with Milosevic's appearance at convoluted war trials than anything. Ditto in spades for Iraq. If you destroy the economy for the middle class to pad the profit margins of well-connected fat cats there will be lots of time to contemplate drugs and religion and appropriate scapegoats. That's when the well-connected call in their lackeys and violence erupts.

Allan Erickson said...

Thankfully, George Bush has laid to rest the myth of "White Supremacy."

attributed to Charlie Wrangel...

Mike Smithson said...

I think Burns had it backwards...businesses move out of an area where gangs subsist...but it goes back further. America's drug war has "felonized" an entire generation of Black fathers. The children are growing up w/o dads, and the teachers are triaging the students, deciding who they can save and who they can't. Latch-key kids are looking for attention, respect and role models and the gangs are there to fill the void. The felon-fathers are getting out of jail with bad credit, a criminal record and a system that isn't interested in helping them.

David Winfield, a Hall of Fame baseball player, has written a new book called "Dropping the Ball" about the problems that major league baseball faces. In it he writes that at one pt, 25% of the professional baseball players were Black. Now it is down to 8%. If this decline continues, then the "last Black baseball player is right now 12 yrds old". Is it because young Black kids are no longer interested in baseball, or is it, as I suggest, that their fathers are not around to teach them baseball?

The War on Drugs is not fought in the white burbs but in the urban black community. The science is clear on this: most drug users are, by far, white, but, most drug felons are black.

AlanBean said...

Mike:
I doubt Ed Burns would argue with your assessment. His basic argument is that the rapid disappearance of low-skill manufacturing jobs has driven millions of blue collar black families into the underclass. The same process is apparent in world of white--but it isn't as pronounced or obvious because, typically, white workers are better educated and white children are better prepared for higher education than their poor black counterparts.

Burns pointed out that the typical vocabulary of a suburban three year-old is 3,000 words; the typical vocabulary of an inner city kid is 300 words. The long-term consequences of this deficit aren't hard to imagine. Street kids, Burns says, are savvy and cunning--but they're also ignorant.

Burns spent several years teaching school in Baltimore, followed by a twenty-year stint as a narcotics detective. "The Wire" grew out of a one-year book project in which he hung out on a Baltimore street corner in a poor, largely black neighborhood and watched the interaction between police officers and a few black teens. So, while I don't agree with everything Burns says (for instance, I think he underplays the role of racism) I take his views very seriously. He knows whereof he speaks and, in this debate, that's refreshing.

Scrappy said...

In 40 years of headlong pursuit of "Justice" (at best a blind, fickle bitch) it is beyond clear that minorities are at an unsurmountable disadvantage. To caim otherwise is simply an affirmation of ignorance. We've had too many unsuccessful "Wars"' and no real PLANS. The victims of "The War on Poverty" were the poor; of the "War on Drugs", the addicts and the taxpayers; of the "War on Terrorism", the victims of terror. We need more peace and less war.

Anonymous said...

To Alan Bean: I am a retired DEA Agent. We've communicated by email and I've read some of your posts about snitching, Tulia, Drug Task Forces and other issues.

My perspective, like Burns, is based on experience so intellectualize it the way you want.

As it relates to snitching rules, Burns is 100% correct. There are very strict rules and 99% are not followed. That's not black or white, it's integrity and when you dig deep into the core of it you'll find a theme that Burns writes about in the "Wire". He just doesn't flush it out as clear as he could.

Right now it's about cooperation. The more cooperation the better and the more agencies you attach to your cooperation wagon the better. Then you have to have federal funding. It's easy, it's volume, and it pays the cooperators huge amounts of overtime they really don't earn.
Then there's the press release and here's where you use creative writing. The investigation is actually a local case with easy targets but there's federal guidelines and you arrest large volumes of people from a target pool with large numbers. The press release is subsequently a creative writing assignment and you put words in there like "dismantle", "linked", and other words that symbolize importance. It's an exaggeration but the group looks like they're doing something. They all put each other in for awards and two years later, the investigation unravels because combining resources causes them to combine rules. The net effect is NO RULES and police misconduct is a natural product of the drug task force concept.
When I supervised a drug task force for DEA, the state and locals ran the task force. That's just the way it was and the only thing DEA did was fund it. The task force agents cut corners, lied, and falsified records because they existed in a gap between the supervisors of their own department and a federal agency that can ONLY CONTROL THEIR OWN. Think about that and you'll find that Drug Task Forces of any kind are the problem no matter who provides the funding.

Anonymous said...

And One Last Issue:

The goal of the drug task force is money just like the trafficker. That money is called Seized money which is later forfeited and it's supplemental funding with no civic accountability.

It's kind of like a Robin Hood theme where the cops take from the rich but give it to themselves. The theme is a noble cause but it's went from being an investigative tool to a service. Now federal agencies sell themselves and their employees to the High Priest of Forfeiture.

In summary, it's a culture and changing attitudes outside the culture won't change the culture.

I've been present at drug investigations I've later read about in the paper. The investigation I was present at was a a one-day, low level, unimportant drug buy followed by a search warrant. The news release prepared by the officers said it was a one-year multi-agency effort that targeted mid level traffickers. The long term investigation terminated with the arrest of 7 individuals and 20K in cash, a car, and other assets were seized.

It turns out the feds paid their overtime which was worth more than the seized drugs. Most of the overtime was fraudulent and the seven who were arrested just happened to be in the house at the time of the search. Charges were later dismissed against six of those arrested and the seventh was released at a suppression hearing. The results never made the NEWS and it turns out the 20K was later used by the departments for more OVERTIME.
Unless I missed something, what does any of that have to do with people's attitudes about drugs and punishment.

Anonymous said...

Snitching has reached an all time low in Coos County, Ore. A drug task force used an informant who was mentally ill, had a history of drug and alcohol problems, a criminal conviction and 23 of her own court appearences. Somehow during her employment as an agent she acquired a job as a school bus driver . http://scint-stinks.com

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