Stop Snitching, for Justice’s Sake

How over incarceration contributed to the stop-snitching movement

By Suhith Wickrema

Contributing Writer


Earlier this year my daughter, Angela and her boyfriend bought a house in Roselawn. At a belated Fathers Day brunch, Angela shared that she had wanted to call the police on the “dope boys” hanging around the street corner. Her boyfriend protested. He said that calling the police would be snitching.

I was impressed with him, a first-year law student. I was somewhat surprised at Angela. Was this evidence that her MBA had more influence on her than my parenting? I mused that, even in the best of circumstances stepfathers have limited influence on their step kids, and consoled myself.

Angela’s boyfriend was in good company. James Duane, a law professor at Regent Law School, in a public lecture titled, “Don’t Talk to the Police,” states, “I will never talk to any police officer under any circumstances.” Duane tells the story of Eddie Joe Lloyd, who had written to the police, suggesting how to solve several murders. Lloyd was convicted of committing one of those murders. After spending 17 years in prison, DNA evidence exonerated him. Paul Butler, a former federal prosecutor, in his book, Let’s Get Free, writes, “Sometimes the most patriotic act is not to help the police.”

Of course, there are people who support Angela’s philosophy, including Hamilton County Coroner, Dr. Odell Owens. A few years ago Owens arrived at the scene of a drive-by shooting in North Fairmount. About 200 neighbors had gathered. No witnesses were stepping forward to help the police. Owens stood in front of the crowd and bellowed, “Who’s going to stand up?”

In a 60 Minutes interview about snitching, Geoffrey Canada, a social activist and CEO of the Harlem Children’s Zone, lamented, “When I was growing up, kids used to talk about snitching. It never extended as a cultural norm outside the gangsters. It was not for regular citizens. It is now a cultural norm that is being preached in poor communities.”

How did not snitching go from being a code among criminals to a norm among some law-abiding citizens? What changed from the time Canada was growing up in the 1960s and early 1970s to now?

One reason might be the over-use of incarceration and its ineffectiveness. In 1975 the annual incarceration rate in this country was about 110 people for every 100,000 in the population. Today it is 751. The National Crime Victimization Survey reports stable rates of violent crimes since 1973. We have locked up more and more people over the past 30 years. However, we have not seen a reduction in the number of crime victims. This is ample evidence that our criminal justice system is broken.

Prison enthusiasts argue that harsh prison sentences and mass incarceration act as deterrence to people committing crimes: “If we increase the cost of committing a crime, people will stop committing crimes.” This was New York Gov. Nelson Rockefeller’s thinking in 1973 when he enacted the harsh mandatory laws against drug dealers and users. This was the same thinking by U.S. House Speaker Tip O’Neill in 1986 when he supported harsher sentences for crack-cocaine dealers and users compared to sentences for users and dealers of powder cocaine. The problem with this theory is that criminals don’t do a cost-benefit analysis before committing a crime.

Over-policing and excessive incarceration of drug dealers might even contribute to more young people getting involved in the drug trade. As long as there is a stable demand for drugs, there will be enterprising young people willing to meet this demand. When the police arrest a drug dealer, there will be another to take his place. Criminologists call this the “replacement effect.”

Most inmates in state prisons tend to come from a handful of neighborhoods. This means that, in certain neighborhoods, almost all the residents might know someone who is in prison or has been in prison. At the same time people in these neighborhoods have not experienced a reduction in victimization. Life experience has taught them that talking to the police does not help. Residents in high-crime areas do not need statistical data or criminological concepts to know that the current criminal justice policy is not working.

So why cooperate with a broken system? Why talk to the police? Not talking to the police has become an act of passive resistance.

“All men recognize the right of revolution – that is, the right to refuse allegiance to, and to resist, the government when its tyranny or its inefficiency are great and unendurable.”-Henry David Thoreau

“We got over two million motherfuckers locked up. Stop snitchin’ ”- Hip-hop artist Ice Cube

With more than two million of my fellow citizens in prisons, I see the act of not cooperating with the police as an act of civil disobedience. I hope you join me.

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