How Building Police Legitimacy Can Foil the ‘No-Snitching’ Culture

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Cynicism and anger over aggressive law enforcement strategies, and a pervasive “no-snitching” culture, create a wall of resistance to cooperating with police that can only be broken when authorities step up efforts “to make high-risk places demonstrably safer,” according to a study by two criminologists.

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Photo by custer_flux via Flickr

Summing up their findings from interviews with 50 young African-American males in two violence-plagued New York neighborhoods, the study authors traced reluctance to cooperate with police on investigations of gun violence to neighborhood codes that punish informants, cynicism about police motives, and a conviction that the youths had to settle their inter-personal disputes without police interference.

The interviewees were chosen because they were individuals most at risk of being victims or perpetrators of gun violence, and whose cooperation was crucial to solving shooting investigations. All were between the ages of 18-29.

“Crime scene investigators frequently express tremendous frustration after tirelessly canvassing for potential witnesses in urban areas characterized by low fatal and nonfatal shooting clearance rates,” wrote the co-authors, Rod K. Brunson of Northeastern University, and Brian A. Wade of Rutgers.

“The situation is worsened because most gun violence occurs in disadvantaged minority neighborhoods, typically at the hands of gang-and drug-involved individuals, (where such) shootings are least likely to be solved, and disproportionately comprise young black males as victims and offenders.”

The interviews, conducted during December 2017 in The Bronx and Brooklyn, N.Y., sought to elicit the reasons why the most at-risk individuals avoided cooperating with law enforcement.

The findings were published in the latest edition of Criminology & Public Policy, the journal of the American Society of Criminology.

This research was supported by the New York City Mayor’s Office of Criminal Justice.

Although previous studies have examined “street codes” such as the strictures against snitching, the “pragmatic reasons for withholding information” have not been the focus of research efforts, the authors said in their study, entitled “Oh Hell No, We Don’t Talk to Police.”

The title was a quote from one of the many revealing interviews described by the authors.

One interviewee, identified only as “Maurice,” summed up the prevailing ethos described by the authors:

A cop would arrest me for just being me, I got arrested for just walking, I just got arrested for a bunch of nonsense, so when it comes to cops…they will arrest you for having a pencil.

The cynicism about police motives was compounded by recurring reports from around the country about police misconduct and officer-involved shootings.

Another interviewee said police came into his house after receiving a phone call that he tried to stab his mother (which he called a lie).

“They came in and restrained me and they bust[ed] my head on the corner of the door in my house,” he told the interviewers. “They banged my head twice but the first time it didn’t bust. The second time it did.”

Fear of retaliation from peers was another reason for keeping the police at arm’s length.

“Citizens who supply the police with information about criminal activity are susceptible not only to the application of the stigmatizing label but also to serious physical injury,” said the study’s authors.

The study added that even though “residents of high-crime neighborhoods are overwhelmingly law-abiding,” many may have “compelling reasons” to refrain from cooperating with cops—reasons that don’t necessarily adhere to anti-snitching codes.

“Violent offending networks brazenly use fear, intimidation, and brutality to assure that ‘decent’ residents will prudently weigh the costs of cooperating with the police,” said the authors.

Distrust of cops by African Americans is well documented. In a 2016 survey, the Pew Research Center found that 75 percent of whites think the police in their communities do an “excellent or good job” in using “the right amount of force for each situation,” but just 33 percent of blacks shared that opinion.

According to the authors, the most successful strategies for winning local cooperation and developing police legitimacy were those built on pro-active efforts to prevent or intervene in gun violence.

Deterrence-oriented models to reduce gun violence such as call-in meetings, in which community leaders can give “compassionate messages of support (e.g., through the promise of tailored social services), and credible threats of swift action by law enforcement representatives against those who refuse to abstain from violence have worked in many cities across the U.S.

The authors called on policymakers to divert more resources to such approaches.

Another strategy that could produce results was to step up investigations of non-fatal shootings.

“This is a worthwhile investment because not only do nonfatal incidents represent most shootings, but they also consistently produce untold residual violence, fear, and disorder, collectively undercutting police effectiveness,” the authors said.

The full study is available for purchase to non-ASC members here. Journalists can receive a .pdf of the study by contacting shandel@ix.netcom.com

TCR News intern Brian Demo contributed to this summary.

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