Monday, April 28, 2008

Statesman late to the 'stop snitching' party; Pravda ahead of the game

In the Austin Statesman today, Joshunda Sanders has a story informing us, "'Stop Snitching' sentiment spreads to Austin," and I'll expand here on comments I left under her story on the newspaper's site.

First, three years ago after I began writing about this topic, a friend bought me a "Stop Snitching" t-shirt from a vendor here in Austin. I don't wear it much, but I've seen the shirts here and there ever about town ever since. So why do we now we get a story saying the sentiment is "spreading to Austin"?

The article quotes almost exclusively police sources, including one bizarre claim that's blatantly, patently false: "The word 'snitch' gives [police] pause, writes Sanders, "'The only people who call it 'snitching' are crooks talking to crooks,' said former Homicide Commander Harold Piatt with the Austin Police Department, who is now retired."

It's ridiculous to claim "snitch" isn't a term used by police. That's straight up three centuries old law enforcement jargon, and is used by police and offenders alike. Hell, it's what police call their co-workers (or "rat") when officers inform on one another! What's the near-universal colloquial police slang for the Internal Affairs division? "The Rat Squad."

None of the problems with overuse of informants made it into the story, for example, how use of criminal informants can actually contribute to crime (see this article by Alexandra Natapoff on the topic). An interesting point of reference would have been this recent story about an Austin snitch working with police revealed that police routinely release criminals on their promise to inform on others, particularly after drug arrests. But are we really safer as a result?

There are plenty of sources both in Austin and nationally who could have made this a much more insightful story instead of a glorified APD press release.

Relatedly, I notice the Russian paper Pravda has an interesting two-part series available in its English language edition called "The Informant Quandary" (see part one and part two).
far too often informants have done more harm than good.

Informants often manipulate their status for personal gain. The Federal Bureau of Investigation’s (FBI) use of organized crime figure James “Whitey” Bulger, for example, enabled Bulger to eliminate competition by informing on other organized crime families, then taking over their territories after their members went to prison.

Harvey Matusow, an informant during the “Red Scare” era of the 1950s, later admitted, in a book entitled False Witness, that he had often been paid to provide false testimony about alleged communists, and was even encouraged to lie by Senator Joseph McCarthy and Roy Cohn, McCarthy’s chief legal counsel, after their anti-communist “crusade” catapulted them into the national spotlight.

Also there is a proclivity for law enforcement to conceal the criminal activities of informants, even at the expense of justice. Recently a judge awarded Joseph Salvati and Peter Limone, and the families of Henry Tameleo and Louis Greco, a judgment in excess of one hundred million dollars after it was revealed that the FBI, in order to shield an informant, allowed these four men to go to prison for a murder they did not commit. Salvati and Limone both served over thirty years, while Tameleo and Greco died in prison.

In addition, informants are prone to lie, especially to please their “handlers.” According to a recent article from the Associated Press, the informant in the Van de Kamp case had stated under oath that he received “no benefit” for his testimony, when in fact he had been given a lighter criminal sentence.

Good points, all. In each of those instances, US law enforcement harmed the interests of justice by prioritizing their informants' interests over crime victims. Perhaps there are brands of "snitching" that need to be stopped?


Anonymous said...

The Police State
Check out this document
FY 07 State of Texas Enhancement Plan Book PDF, which can be found here:

It's the Texas' plan to implement Big Brother.

Anonymous said...

I'm reading The Tyranny of Good Intentions by Roberts and Stratton. It explores this issue and much more. There is a law journal summary here.

I think it goes to the heart of many differences of opinion in the FLDS raid.