Saturday, December 22, 2007

The Whisperers: 3/4 of Grits readers have known of drug possession crimes and didn't snitch

Here's another unscientific metric that makes me think most people have a very mixed opinion about the ethics of informants and "snitching": Perhaps unsurprisingly, more than 75% of respondents in last week's Grits readers poll said that, at some point, they have known about a drug possession crime committed by another person and failed to tell the authorities.

That's a big percentage who don't necessarily think, for whatever reason, that reporting a crime is always a good idea, that sometimes one's loyalty lies more with the "criminal" than with the state. I'm not surprised because the result confirms other recent data: A majority of Americans in a scientific poll said they wouldn't snitch on co-workers who embezzled or violated tax laws.

Via Wikipedia recently I ran across this webpage developed by a professor and students to evaluate public values concerning "snitching." Applied psychology students this year at a community college in Philadelphia have been surveying their peers using this instrument to better understand the values around snitching, and I'll be interested to see their results when they're published. The questions asked imply, as we see from these results, that people view "snitching" differently based on who is the offender, who is the victim, the nature of the offense, and whether the snitch received compensation in either treasure or reduced culpability for their own crimes.

Relatedly, driving home this morning from an early errand, I heard on NPR an interview with Professor Orlando Liges who authored a book called "The Whisperers," chronicling tales of how the use of informants in Soviet Russia influenced the culture and family life. Wrote Liges:
The Russian language has two words for a 'whisperer' — one for somebody who whispers out of fear of being overheard (shepchushchii), another for the person who informs or whispers behind people's backs to the authorities (sheptun). The distinction has its origins in the idiom of the Stalin years, when the whole of Soviet society was made up of whisperers of one sort or another.
The book appears to focus on the ways the informant culture degraded everyday human relations, and I wondered as I listened to the story how much of what the author describes would also apply to the use of informants in the American drug war, particularly in crime-ridden black neighborhoods our largest cities.

Don't get me wrong: the Stalinist purges outpaced the American drug war in brutality and especially their death count by many orders of magnitude, and I'm not comparing the two in that way. However, a study of the corrosive influence of an informant culture in any context may offer lessons for the sociological effects of tactic's use elsewhere on a wide scale. In an era when the network of law enforcement's drug informants, particularly in minority neighborhoods with high crime rates, rivals in volume that of the Stasi or the KGB under communist rule, I think an analysis of how that dynamic affects the individual family structure may illuminate dynamics that occur in more than a few American households in the here and now.

Prof. Alexandra Natapoff has estimated that one in 12 black men returning home from prison may be informants for police at any one time. In 2002, 41% of Texas' approximately 150,000 inmates were black (compared to 12% of the overall population), as were more than 24,000 of the 55,183 inmates Texas released from prison in 2001. If Natapoff's estimate is accurate, that means more than 2000 black men who left Texas prisons in 2001 became informants after they got out. And that's just for one state, in one year. Many more become informants much earlier in the process, before they're even arrested or before final conviction. While it's impossible to accurately estimate the number of police informants in the United States from publicly available data, these numbers imply that the total is not insignificant, arguably approaching a scale unseen in modern times outside of communist totalitarian states.

If you change out "fear of repression" with "fear of imprisonment for drugs," what Stalin-era families went through isn't much different than the dilemmas facing people accused of drug crimes and their families:
Millions of people lived like Antonina in a constant state of fear because their relatives had been repressed. How did they cope with that insecurity? What sort of balance could they strike between their natural feelings of injustice and alienation from the Soviet system and their need to find a place in it? What adjustments did they have to make to overcome the stigma of their 'spoilt biography' and become accepted as equal members of society?
The idea of a "spoilt" biography is especially interesting to me, as that phrase could easily be used to describe the effects of a felony record on drug offenders today. When a person's options are limited by their "spoilt biography," the petty incentives and harms that may be imposed by authorities at their whimsy can overwhelm ethical concerns for someone struggling to survive

LULAC estimated a couple of years ago that nearly one in eleven Texas adults have a felony conviction on their record, while nearly one in twenty are currently under control of the criminal justice system, either in prison, jail, on probation or parole.

The results of Grits reader poll tells me that the drug war today creates similar dynamics where average, law abiding people find themselves confronting conflicting motives and values over whether to supply police with information. Those 75% of the 211 blog readers who answered "Yes" to this poll question are themselves the drug war's version of "The Whisperers," people torn between duty to family, friends, community and the state, all making individual choices about when to cooperate on a case by case basis.

RELATED: Grits posts on values behind anti-snitching ethos -
SEE ALSO: On the topic of informants who continue to commit crimes while they're "cooperating" with the police, this story from Canada seems almost iconic: A Hells Angels member collected more than $180,000 and was promised a total of $650,000 in informant fees in a contract with police. But continued to commit crimes himself over several years throughout his service as an government snitch, despite admonitions by his handlers that he was violating agency policy.

First image via Confessions of an Insomniac.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

If you've not read The Innocent Man a true story written by John Grisham, I would highly recommend it. Issues of Capital Punishment, Snitching, Police Interrogation and Mental Illness are among the issues covered in the book.