THE MAGAZINE

Can I Get a Witness?

By Laura Spadanuta

Forms of Intimidation

Witness intimidation comes in various guises. There is overt or explicit intimidation, which John Anderson, who works in the antigang unit at the Orange County (California) District Attorney’s Office, describes in a 2007 National Gang Center Bulletin as encompassing everything from explicit threats to property damage to violence.

Intimidation also includes implicit threats, such as wearing a Stop-Snitchin’ t-shirt to trial (more on the stop snitching phenomenon later). Jake Wark, spokes-man for the Suffolk County (Massachusetts) District Attorney Daniel Conley’s Office says that one of the more unique implicit threats he remembers was a case several years ago where grand jury testimony—which is supposed to remain secret—was attached to the front doors of the homes in the housing development where both the witness who appeared before the grand jury and the defendant lived.

That incident was “absolutely chilling,” says Wark.

Investigators are trying to understand the different types of threats they deal with now, such as graffiti, says Andrew Grascia, president of the New York Gang Investigators Association (NYGIA). “Gangs operate by using graffiti to show intimidation and control of an area,” says Grascia. Prosecutors and law enforcement need to take graffiti as seriously as they would a threatening letter, he adds.

“The type of intimidation that we’re dealing with now in the late 20th and early 21st centuries is coming out of densely populated urban areas in which the suspect, the victim, and the witnesses all live in very close quarters, often the same block,” explains Wark.

It’s easy for gangs to intimidate, because they are “a very visible presence in these neighborhoods,” says Moses.

Gangs also exploit a “burgeoning counterculture” that denigrates cooperation with law enforcement, notes Wark. 

Nowhere is such a culture more on display than in the empire of Stop-Snitchin’ DVDs and apparel and in the music of rap artists such as Ice Cube and The Game, who warn people not to snitch or trust the police. The first Stop- Snitchin’ DVD was released in Baltimore in 2004 and featured NBA star Carmelo Anthony, who grew up there.

Who’s a snitch? “Snitch” has traditionally been the derogatory name for a confidential informant who is offering testimony against associates or fellow gang members in exchange for a reduced sentence. Police and prosecutorial use of informants in drug cases has proliferated in recent decades.

The “jailhouse snitch” and the street informant have long been denigrated by local culture. But now, the concept of snitching is being conflated with helping police in other ways, such as testifying as a witness to a crime.

Last year, Rick Frei, a psychology professor at the Community College of Philadelphia, had his class conduct a study to determine attitudes toward snitching and working with police. The research included a survey of college students who hailed from various neighborhoods in Philadelphia.

The survey found that students classify a wide range of activities as snitching, from answering police questions at a crime scene to ratting out a classmate who cheated on an exam. However, the study found that overall perceptions of what constitutes snitching are proportional to the amount of initiative the interaction requires.

For example, answering questions at a crime scene was deemed snitching by only 15.8 percent of respondents, while picking a suspect out of a lineup was labeled as snitching by 28.6 percent, and ratting on someone else to avoid responsibility for a crime was viewed as snitching by 82.6 percent of respondents.

Some are blaming the Stop-Snitchin’ DVDs and hip hop artists, such as the rapper Cam’ron, who refused to cooperate with police when he was shot during a Washington, D.C., carjacking for spreading the phenomenon. Jessamy handed out copies of the Stop-Snitchin’ DVD to legislators in an effort to motivate them to pass witness intimidation legislation.

More than one-third of Frei’s survey respondents said that they listened to music that explicitly states that snitching is bad, but there was no clear indication that the music shaped their views on the subject. Only 5 percent said they were directly influenced by such music.

Whether someone would know how the music influenced him or her is uncertain, but it’s also possible that respondents get the same message more broadly through the community. That’s Frei’s viewpoint.

“I don’t think it has as much of an influence as people think it does. I think it’s the other way around. I think people who already live in environments where they don’t trust the police are drawn to music that expresses their feelings,” he says.

Wark agrees with that view, saying, “The creation of Stop-Snitchin’ t-shirts [and music] didn’t start a movement toward noncooperation with law enforcement—it expresses a feeling of noncooperation with law enforcement.”

At the same time, however, “It brings a slogan, it brings an image, it brings an easy phrase to the table, which culturally can propel something that otherwise might fade out on its own,” he says.

Grascia agrees, saying the culture of silence has always existed, but “the hip hop environment, the youth environment has taken it to a whole new level and brought it to mainstream America.” 

Not empty threats. Aside from the no-snitching code, witnesses also don’t cooperate with the police because they don’t have faith that the criminal justice system will protect them. They have good reason to worry.

Lianne Archer, a vice president with the NYGIA and a school social worker, cites the example of a youth in her school who told a police officer about a gang initiation that involved stealing iPods and phones. The police officer told the thieves the name of the informant. The gang then beat the adolescent witness in retaliation. Although such a case is not the norm, Archer says it does happen.

Other cases are even more serious. Several cities and states have seen highly publicized murders of gang trial witnesses in recent years. Victims have included families, pregnant women, and even children, such as 10-year-old Qua-Daishia Hopkins, who was killed in an arson fire earlier this year in New Jersey after her mother testified against a drug dealer.

Youth are particularly vulnerable to intimidation, because they are less likely or less able to hide from intimidators and more susceptible to peer and family pressure, according to a 1996 National Institute of Justice report called Preventing Gang-and Drug-Related Witness Intimidation.

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