The author, identified only as Toure', offers a terrific discussion of the internal mental wrangling he went through before deciding to call the police about a crack house he'd identified in his neighborhood. Perhaps tellingly, what put him over the edge was a decision (not his own) to stop renting and purchase a home in the area! (There's nothing like a good ol' American concern about property values to make you more community minded!). Here's how he described his reaction to learning about a drug operation in his neighborhood:
For a day, I patted myself on the back for discovering the little crack house hiding nearby. The following day I freaked out.
Now that I knew, I realized that I was tacitly aiding and abetting their immoral, illegal and dangerous behavior. What if one of the crackheads attacked my wife as she walked home? What if a kid from the day care center near the crack house found a vial on the sidewalk?
What if someone unaffiliated with the den of chemical madness got shot? What was their presence doing to the property value and, more important, to the zeitgeist of Fort Greene?
My only real option was to call the police. But that option was fraught with psychological problems.
As a black male New Yorker, I’ve long regarded the boys in blue as the opposition. I know if the dice had fallen differently, I could have been Amadou Diallo or Abner Louima or Sean Bell. And I come from the hip-hop generation, in which snitching against a black person is treason.
But would it really be snitching? The term truly refers to criminals ratting on other criminals, not taxpaying citizens reporting what they’ve seen criminals do. And should I protect poisoners of people and the neighborhood just because they’re black?
IN the midst of my prolonged internal conversation, I got into a fight with my live-in landlord and was given a month to move out. For a week, my wife and I combed Fort Greene and began the process of buying a sexy modern apartment just eight blocks away. Now we had just a few more weeks to live near the little crack house.
But as we closed on our new place, my relationship with Fort Greene deepened. I was no longer a renter who might float away to another neighborhood. I would soon be an owner with a stake in the future of the community. Could I allow these people to drag down my beloved neighborhood and say nothing?
That account made me laugh out loud, but I'll bet it's pretty typical. As a renter, the guy thinks it's cool to know about the "secret" New York, or perhaps thinks about the moral consequences of what happens if someone gets shot, or even worries about his family's safety. But he said nothing. Then he decided to purchase a house and all of a sudden worries that the crack den might "drag down my beloved neighborhood."I've never seen statistics, but I bet it's true home owners call the police more frequently when they see crime than do renters. (Should those asking people to "start snitching" really be seeking expanded home ownership?)
But the really ironic part of the story is what happened after Toure' made the decision to call the police. Nothing. It turns out, if you're not being coerced by police or prosecutors, it's a lot of work to "snitch." He discovered that:
it’s not easy to drop a dime. I spoke to one cop who was marginally interested in my story and told me to call back and speak to someone else. I called again the next day and spoke to the sergeant in charge of controlling drugs in our area.That experience is probably typical of many witnesses who report crime. Even if you start snitching, frequently nothing happens unless there's something in it for the cops. When I was director of ACLUTX's Police Accountability Project, it's fair to say I heard nearly as many complaints of inaction by police as I did of alleged police misconduct (and in that position, I heard a lot of both). That's not to say every criticism was warranted, just that the experience made me aware that a persistent public perception exists among those you'd categorize as concerned citizens - people with stakes in the community who want to stop crime - that, as this author put it, "it's not easy to drop the dime."
He kept me on the phone way longer than was comfortable. He asked me what people yelled to gain access to the place, and how I knew the white stuff was contraband. He asked me if I’d testify in court, and if his guys could sit on our roof or in our apartment and surveil them. I wasn’t down with any of that. He said O.K., they’d find a way of investigating them and get back to me.
In my last week in the apartment, I spent a lot of time packing and watching. The sergeant called back to say they’d tried to infiltrate the crack house but failed. He said I should e-mail Police Commissioner Raymond Kelly.
The day before the movers came, no longer were the eight or nine crackheads yelling into the window to gain access; now they all had keys to the building. I guess they’d felt the heat — and made some changes.
Now I live eight blocks away, but sometimes my wife sends me to South Oxford for sushi from the corner restaurant. One night around 11, I turned my head just in time to see a crackhead dipping into the building. The little crack house that could is still chugging along, right under everyone’s nose.
If law enforcement tells folks through the media to "start snitching" then does nothing when they call, what incentive do people have in the future to cooperate with police? This fellow's experience, extrapolated more broadly, would lead wide swaths of the public to think reporting crime to police is a waste of time, that if they go out on a limb to improve their community that law enforcement won't follow through on their end. In that sense, I think some people don't choose to believe in a "stop snitching" code so much as they acquiesce in it.