Monday, March 24, 2008

Some may choose a 'stop snitching' code, but others acquiesce in it

Here's a first-hand narrative that illustrates why police criticisms of the "Stop Snitching" meme over the last couple of years sometimes receive a mixed reception from people who live in crime-ridden neighborhoods. Anyone interested in the subject of snitches vs. witnesses, or the the mental weighing of interest and consequence that goes into someone's decision to report a crime, should be sure to read the whole thing from yesterday's New York Times ("A Snitch Like Me," March 23).

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.

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.

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."

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.


Anonymous said...

You make the assumption that the police must have just ignored the complaint. I doubt this is the case. Instead, the police may just not have the resources to take care of the problem immediately. It also takes a lot of time to develop probable cause to kick in a door or abate a problem location.

As an officer, I've gotten many tips about crack houses. Many of them take months to resolve. The house has to be watched to determine what kind of activities are going on. The police may try to develop an informant to go into the house and give specific info in order to get a warrant.

I know that you have real problems with the police use of informants but it is invaluable in these cases. I've had informants able to get in locations and solved the problems within days. Those houses where I can't develop informants take much longer.

I find it funny that you expect the police to take care of problems immediately but always criticize them for using necessary tactics.

It seems like the police can't win with this blog.

Gritsforbreakfast said...

"You make the assumption that the police must have just ignored the complaint"

I don't assume that at all. Whether they did or not doesn't matter from this fellow's perspective. He had difficulty making a complaint, and nobody kept him informed what was happening, ultimately telling him to put political pressure on the police commissioner, of all things, if he wanted something done.

Also, if you read closely I've never opposed use of informants across the board, only called for stricter controls like requiring corroboration for their testimony and requiring documentation so supervisors know what's going on and defendants can later have a paper trail to follow if there's misconduct.

In this case, the information he gave police was plenty to get a search warrant. They didn't need an informant to follow up.

Often police are in a no-win situation, facing demands from the public for response to crime and justifiable concerns about overreach and loosey goosey tactics, not all of which are "necessary," as informants weren't in this case.

However unlike you, Todd, I don't think we'll find solutions without discussing the conundrum, whereas you seem to blame me for simply pointing it out, or rather for pointing out this guy pointing it out. Often I feel like I'm in a no-win situation with police critics, too, believe me. That doesn't mean, though, that we stop talking about ways to reduce crime while respecting constitutional rights. Instead it means the conversation hasn't gone far enough.

Anonymous said...

I am afraid it is a lot harder to get probable cause for a search warrant than you seem to think. A neighbor complaint about a crack house is only the start of the process. Cops still need an informant or a statement from someone who saw dope there.

This is why I get annoyed with this blog. You really don't know what is needed but that doesnt stop you from your criticism.

Gritsforbreakfast said...

Todd, I notice you pick out the one sentence in my response you think you can dispute and ignore all my reactions to your original points. That's the sign of somebody playing a losing hand in an argument.

An evening's surveillance on top of a neighbor's complaint who's willing to testify should indeed be enough to get a search warrant, if crackheads are going in and out of the place at all hours. Need an informant, pick up one of the crack heads on their way out. How many "months" does that take? I'll guarantee you the Byrne task forces had MUCH less investigation behind many of their drug busts than that (see Tom Coleman, etc.).

Bottom line, this guy gave them what they needed to investigate the crime, and we don't know what police did or didn't do in response. My article is about HIS perceptions. You're the one that wants to turn it into a debate over whether the police are to blame.

And btw, you're frustrated with this blog not because of any errors you think I've made, but because you oppose anyone criticizing police for any reason, as you've made plain in most of your comments over time (they all have an identical, defensive theme). On that we must agree to disagree. If you think a counter view is needed, I'd strongly encourage you to keep commenting or start your own blog.

Anonymous said...

Legalize it. Kill the black market and its profit incentives, ending much of the violence and crime. Let Darwin deal with the users.

Anonymous said...

The problem every "concerned citizen" meets head on is the fact that there are "good" drug dealers and "bad" drug dealers. I've discovered that reading this blog. Some drug dealers don't get busted because they cooperate with police to get "bad" drug dealers. People who live in these neighborhoods often discover how dirty police hands are with these types of experience. Police are not the friends of these communities. They don't give an aeronautical copulation about public safety. They want easy arrests and fast revenue to justify their pathetic existence. The fastest way to that goal is to cultivate "good" drug dealers as "police assets". The fastest way is to go undercover - and lie to the public about your identity.

Police are among the world's most effective liars. They lie to promote abusive drug policy. They lie about their identities. They lie about the misconduct of their associates. They invent ruses to harass people. They invent stories to justify misconduct and they verify ruses and stories of their associates. If "Serpico" didn't convince most people about the oxymoron "honest cop" I don't know what will. Their lying is pathological and borderline criminal. Thank goodness none of the police in "Meth awareness" assemblies in communities are under oath because no judge wouldn't convict their lying butts of perjury!