Saturday, August 18, 2007

"Snitch" is not a synonym for "witness"

Anti-violence organizer Ronald Moten, writing in the Washington Post ("The real meaning of 'snitching'," Aug. 19) made a distinction that's critical to protecting witnesses while discouraging shoddy, even crime generating police tactics: The difference between a witness and a snitch:
the true definition of a snitch: someone who commits a crime but then blames an accomplice so that he can negotiate a lighter sentence or even go free. Often he tells lies and incriminates the innocent. People like that are the real snitches and they are cowardly. Snitching is a way for criminals to game the system.

But not everyone who talks to police is a snitch. If you're a victim of a crime and you or someone you trust cooperates with them, you are not a snitch. If you try to get rid of negativity in your community, you are not "hot" or a snitch.

I blame the hip-hop industry for spreading confusion about the definition of snitching. I also understand that the artists are just trying to sell records by glorifying a criminal and prison culture they often know nothing about.

Thank you, sir. This message cannot be repeated often enough. "Snitch" is not a synonym for "witness."

Criminals who trade information to reduce culpability for their crimes - informants, snitches, rats, CIs, whatever you want to call them - pose serious policy risks that frequently produce wrongful convictions and cause police to tolerate crime. That kind of snitching justifiably deserves scorn, Moten writes, but "When a citizen witnesses crime and decides to be civically responsible, this doesn't constitute snitching; it's doing the right thing."

See prior, related Grits items on snitching.


Anonymous said...

Thanks, this post brings home to me an important concept. Proper use of language is a powerfull tool!

The difference between witness and snitch is every bit as important as the difference between ignorant and stupid.

Both of these concepts should be tought in high school english classes.

Anonymous said...

The term 'snitch' also includes those who will bear false witness for money, drugs, reduced penalties, getting off scot free, or even the offer of the same, or even the hope of the same.

Just because someone is a snitch is no reason to believe anything he says is true.

Don said...

Ok, but the law enforcement and judicial system encourages this abominable type of "snitching" offering deals to the criminal mitigating their own charges. IMO, they are worse than the criminals themselves, because the criminals are, well, criminals. Do not the cops and prosecutors who promote this behavior deserve our scorn as much or more? This is the "drug warriors'" main tactic.

Anonymous said...

Prosecutors do not deserve our respect! 98% of convictions are "plea agreeemnts" where nothing is proved in a court of law and the convicted do not receive the benefit of due process.

Snitches go along with whatever will get them the best deal. We never know who the real criminals are because the system just doesn't work that way.

For sure, snitches are at best self serving and do not further the cause of justice.

Unknown said...

How is a snitch considered differently from a whistle blower? A whistle blower is often also involved in a crime just like a snitch. The whistle blower is "just following orders" when they do so; they don't initiate the action. They turn in coworkers and supervisors for misconduct - even though many have a non disclosure paragraph in their contract. Some avoid civil prosecution from employers only because they prefer that when people get caught for "just following orders" they be labeled as a "bad apple".
It should be noted that - despite false claims about some whistle blowers as being disgruntled and vindictive, some whistle blowing is motivated by baser emotions. Not all whistle blowers are noble good citizens.

Anonymous said...

Re: J. T. Barrie
Not all of any category are noble and good citizens. My gut instinct tells me that "whistle blower" derives from an official in a game who sees a foul and "blows the whistle." If he doesn't see a foul and blows the whistle anyway, because he has an interest in the outcome of the game (a la the recent NBA official) then he is a criminal. People involved in a crime who then "blow the whistle" on a subordinate or supervisor in exchange for the promise of leniency for their own crime are technically whistle blowers, but they are no different ethically from a snitch. I think the term "whistle blower" should be reserved for people who blow the whistle on wrongdoing within their company or government, but who have no legal or financial interest in the outcome. These people usually, rather than being rewarded for their whistle blowing, pay a dear price. I've been there, done that.

Charles Kiker, Tulia

SteveHeath said...

Is a police officer who reports malfeasance and/or criminal acts by other police officers considered a "snitch" or a "witness"?

Seems that given the rarity of such cops, the former is more likely and that we in fact need more of the latter - just as we do when dealing with civilians who commit crimes against persons and/or property.

Cheers from Clearwater FL - Steve

Gritsforbreakfast said...

steveheath: Assuming the officer is not trading away culpability for their own criminal conduct, I would consider them a classic whistleblower. I'm sure, though, his or her co-workers would consider the officer a snitch.

The Blue Wall of Silence among police, the FBI covering up "serious violent felonies" committed by its informants, Alberto Gonzales' memory lapses before Congress, rewarding Scooter Libby's silence with a prison sentence commutation - all of these show that the no snitching code extends beyond thugs and into both officialdom and mainstream culture.

If someone in an official capacity calls foul on illegal activity, that's whistleblowing. If they're engaging in criminal activity themselves and they give information after they're caught to game the system for a reduced punishment, then they're a snitch. That's how I'd define it, anyway. And just to have said it, your example why you can't rule out use of informants, and I''m not against the practice per se, - I just want the currently cowboy-esque tactics MUCH more regulated and accountable. best,

SteveHeath said...

Thanks Scott for the clarification re: Cops who could be called whistleblowers and those who would be more fairly deemed snitches.

Likely I overlooked the former because it seems so rare for any cop to cross that Blue Line, almost regardless of the malfeasance they might witness.

That said, I do know that Internal Affairs does not operate solely off of civilian complaints.