Combating the Stop Snitching Code of Silence
Communication between law enforcement and the communities they serve is essential to successful community policing. The willingness of community members to share vital information and participate in partnership-enhancing activities with their local law enforcement agencies has been a successful strategy for addressing and preventing crime. Unfortunately, intimidation and the fear of retaliation from individuals involved in illegal activities are straining the relationship between law enforcement and communities. Drug dealers, gang members, and other criminals are promoting a stop snitching culture that often threatens violence against people who provide information to, or cooperate in any way with, the police. The resulting unwillingness to work with local law enforcement is jeopardizing law enforcement initiatives throughout the country.
An unspoken code of silence has existed in many communities for a number of years. Originally, the message was intended for criminal defendants who were seen as “ratting out” their friends in exchange for lighter prison sentences for themselves. What is new is the way the stop snitching message has evolved. Now, it is commonly understood to mean that any cooperation with police, even by victims of crime, is snitching.
The problem gained notoriety recently, in part because of a DVD that was produced in Baltimore in 2004. This video featured an appearance by a professional basketball player and has been distributed widely through the Internet. It was the release of the DVD that is believed to have spawned T-shirts, hats, and rap CDs with stop snitching messages that threaten violence against those who provide information to the police about crimes. The target audience for this message is youths and young adults who are most easily influenced by the media, the rap music industry, and the clothing that glorifies this phenomenon.
To reach this segment of the community and convince them to cooperate with the police, law enforcement agencies must partner with other criminal justice agencies, community members, and organizations to spread a positive message, lessen the power of intimidation, and reduce fear. Additionally, agencies must develop programs within their departments to increase protections for witnesses because people will be more willing to cooperate if they feel safe. The increased cooperation will aid in the prosecution of the criminals who intimidate the community and the worst offenders will be put behind bars.
A new publication from the COPS Office, The Stop Snitching Phenomenon: Breaking the Code of Silence, provides an overview of codes of silence and discusses a variety of new initiatives and promising practices that law enforcement agencies are using to combat the stop snitching message and to encourage community members to trust and cooperate with law enforcement. The publication is based on an Executive Session sponsored by the COPS Office and the Police Executive Research Forum in which more than 100 criminal justice officials and community leaders examined the problem, how it is affecting witness cooperation, clearance, rates, and the overall ability to bring criminals to justice. The goal was to use the knowledge gained to develop programs and partnerships to address the problem. Additional research, follow-up interviews, and site visits with law enforcement and community representatives further expand the information contained in the publication.
The Stop Snitching Phenomenon: Breaking the Code of Silence can be ordered online at www.cops.usdoj.gov or by calling the COPS Office Response Center at 800.421.6770.