Unnecessary Evil - Solutions: Rebuild Trust

October 29, 2007

A conversation about “snitching” is ablaze within a growing number of communities across America.  The media has generally portrayed this conversation as a polarizing debate between those engaging in witness intimidation and those defending the rule of law.

> SOLUTIONS
> Collect Data to assess public safety value of informant use
> Open a dialogue between police and communities about informant use

 

On one side are calls from certain voices within urban African American communities to “Stop Snitchin’.” On the other side are police, prosecutors and crime victim advocates who have decried the “Stop Snitchin’” slogan as unabashed witness intimidation.  Some have urged the public to fully cooperate with law enforcement, while others see cooperation (even by witnesses) as impossible given their profound mistrust of police.  Police in some areas have even instituted “Start Snitchin’” programs to counter what they see as a dangerous movement to threaten witnesses from coming forward to testify about gang- and drug-related violence in their neighborhoods. 

What this debate often misses is the fact that trust between community members and police has eroded significantly in recent years, and any conversation about witness cooperation has to begin with rebuilding that trust.

> REAL WORLD IMPACT
This controversial “Stop Snitchin’” message has been printed on t-shirts, baseball hats, billboards, referred to in popular entertainment and on countless websites.
An advertisement printed in the Boston Herald in June 2007 is an example of the “Start Snitchin’” backlash to the “Stop Snitchin’” sentiment.
Temple University professor, Marc Lamont Hill, presents a sophisticated analysis of the “Stop Snitchin’” controversy on Hannity & Colmes.
Watch it >>

 

Why has trust eroded between police and the communities they are meant serve?  That’s a complicated question, but part of the answer has to do with the pervasive misuse of informants, especially in urban communities of color. Available data suggests that 1 in 12 Black men are working as informants within their communities today – a rate higher than the use of informants by the Stasi in East Germany during the communist regime. The over-reliance on informants in policing minority communities has had a devastating effect on community-police relations, trust within the community and public safety.

Additionally, the steady parade of informant-related scandals, such as the death of Kathryn Johnston, has led to a deep resentment of the tactic within these communities and a conviction that informant use may do more harm than good.

Police are entrusted with keeping neighborhoods safe, but they cannot do their jobs without the trust and cooperation of people in the community who are willing to come forward when they witness a crime. Unfortunately, because today’s informant system lacks the oversight mechanisms needed to ensure that informants are utilized in ways that help – not harm – the public’s overall safety, fewer and fewer people trust law enforcement enough to assist with investigations.

> SOLUTIONS
 Policy makers must demand data collection that documents and assesses the extent to which informant use has helped or undermined public safety, particularly in communities of color. This data collection can be achieved through requiring that all local, state and federal law enforcement agencies report the following information to an agency that aggregates and publicly reports it:

 

  • The neighborhood or zip code where the informant was used
  • informant’s gender
  • informant’s race
  • any crimes committed by the informant
  • for each crime committed by the informant, whether the informant was arrested, charged, and/or convicted
  • the number of arrests and/or prosecutions in which the informant’s information was used
  • whether the informant's testimony was corroborated by other evidence in securing arrest and/or conviction
  • the length of time the informant has been cooperating with the government
  • how much the informant has been paid by the government
 Law enforcement officials who feel that their investigations are frustrated by calls from within minority communities to “Stop Snitchin’” should convene public meetings in those neighborhoods to specifically discuss the issue of informant use. Alternatively, community members who are concerned about this issue should request such a meeting with its law enforcement agencies. The purpose of these meetings should be to start an ongoing dialogue about how police utilize informants and the community’s concerns about such use. Some questions to consider in planning a meeting on this topic are:
  • For which kinds of crimes do police generally use informants? Does the community feel that all of these crimes warrant informant use? For example, does the community feel differently about using informant to solve non-violent drug crimes versus murders, rapes or acts of terrorism?
  • How many informants are estimated to be working within the local area? Does the community feel that the number of active informants is too high, too low, or just about right?
  • How do police guarantee that informants are telling the truth? What steps do police take to verify the information informants give to them?
  • How do police decide when it would be better to use an informant instead of an undercover police officer?

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