As the chaos recedes from the nationwide protests, investigators are attempting to hold liable attackers, arsonists, rapists, and looters. But this month’s anti-police fervor is bolstering the Stop Snitching movement, making successful prosecution unlikely.
Unfortunately, the physical and social intimidation of witnesses may be one of the most self-destructive paths a community can take.
The liberal owner of a Cleveland cupcake shop recently locked herself and her employees in a bathroom while protesters ransacked her family store. When she publicly thanked police for saving her life that day and answered their questions about the rampage, she was threatened that her shop was going to be destroyed again—“and you.”
The statistics on witness intimidation show the growing extent of this alarming trend. A study of witnesses appearing in Bronx County, N.Y., indicated that at least 36 percent of witnesses had been directly threatened, and that among those not explicitly threatened, 57 percent fear that they would be subject to reprisals.
A study conducted by the National Youth Gang Center indicated that 88 percent of urban prosecutors have described witness intimidation as a serious problem. In cities such as Baltimore and Boston, prosecutors estimate that witnesses face some kind of intimidation in nearly 80 percent of all homicide cases.
But the more substantial problem for an orderly society is not the explicit threat of physical harm but rather what is going on now: the growing acceptance of a societal norm in some circles that “snitching” is morally wrong.
This is a more dangerous development than physical intimidation because it affects not just serious gang-related cases but any sort of crime – even looting a cupcake shop. And, more importantly, it has the power to intimidate witnesses without anyone ever saying a word. The public acceptance of the norm means people will increasingly internalize it.
The Stop Snitching movement was at one time just an underground cultural attitude. But it gained legitimacy in many communities and became a mainstream popular message in part from its promotion in rap lyrics: “Snitches Get Stitches!” Rapper Ice Cube’s 2006 “Stop Fucking Snitchin’” was a monster hit.
And the social education continues. Not long ago, rapper YG produced a music video whose plot involves a group of slaves attempting to escape only to have one of them “snitch” to their masters. Vivid stuff.
Such social stigmatization has broadened the acceptance of the stop-snitching norm. As the prosecutor overseeing the Essex County, N.J., office explained, “the number of witnesses who remain silent because they fear for their safety is probably less than 1/10 the number who refuse to talk because they fear the social repercussions.”
The deep-seated distrust of police that makes Stop Snitching a serious movement is not difficult to understand. Even before the current public upset triggered by high-profile cases of police excessive use of force, as with George Floyd, many minority neighborhoods had long-simmering anger over wildly excessive sentences for many drug offenses, often procured, as they saw it, through police “testilying.”
And in these politically tumultuous times, the social pressure to stay silent may be expanding to a broader swath of society. Reporting politically-inspired crimes may be stigmatized as disloyalty to the resistance.
But as understandable as the emotion behind Stop Snitching may be, it is nonetheless a guaranteed path to a downward spiral. As the government’s ability to successfully prosecute offenders slips away, the incentives to commit crimes increases. And the crime increase will not be equally distributed.
Tragically, it is poorer communities who suffer the greatest victimization. One study found that “Americans earning the lowest incomes experienced rates of violent victimhood that were 206 percent higher than people with the highest incomes.”
Thus it is the poorer communities that will disproportionally suffer the crime-promoting effects of the Stop Snitching movement.
This is particularly true in the current atmosphere, where public denunciation of cooperating with police dovetails nicely with the “defund police” and “abolish police” movements.
At the same time, the push to silence witnesses can be morally justified as being in furtherance of a great moral cause. Snitches used to be condemnable because they helped the system generate unjust sentences. But in our increasingly Woke society, witnesses can now be publicly despised with a claim that, like everyone else who opposes the movement, they must be racists.
It’s hard to see how this can end well.
The stronger the admonition to Stop Snitching, the greater the damage to the communities already disproportionally victimized. If the current protest movement is to maintain true moral credibility, it needs to condemn all forms of witness intimidation – explicit and implicit.
Social activists are right to demand a fairer and a colorblind criminal justice system, but normalizing witness intimidation will not get us there.
Paul H. Robinson is the Colin S. Diver Professor of Law at the University of Pennsylvania and co-author of “Shadow Vigilantes: How Distrust in the Justice System Breeds a New Kind of Lawlessness.”