Author Interviews

Writer: Legal System to Blame for 'No-Snitch' Rules

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Author Ethan Brown discusses his new book, Snitch: Informants, Cooperators and the Corruption of Justice, and the "no-snitch" culture that is evolving in some inner cities. Brown also analyzes the role of hip-hop and whether the criminal justice system in the U.S. is part of the problem as much as it is part of the solution.


I'm Michel Martin. This is TELL ME MORE from NPR News.

Coming up, we'll take another look at HIV/AIDS in the nation's capital. Washington, D.C., was once applauded for its proactive approach to facing the disease. So why does the city now have the highest infection rate in the country? One reporter who's been tracking the epidemic gives us his take.

But first, we continue our conversation that we've been having really since we launched the program. It's about snitching. Snitching or informing is part of the culture dating back to childhood. Nobody likes a tattletale. And popular culture has always made a villain of the stool pigeon.

But as violent crime surges in major cities, and to some observers a hip-hop culture seems to glorify thugs and denigrate law enforcement, those in the straight and narrow are concerned that a no-snitch culture has taken over. They say it's costing lives and allowing violent criminals to operate with impunity. But is that really true?

Author Ethan Brown has written a book "Snitch: Informers, Cooperators & the Corruption of Justice." It takes an in-depth look at snitching, how it evolved into what it is today and what it means for the judicial system. He joins us from member station WWNO in New Orleans to talk about this.

Ethan Brown, welcome.

Mr. ETHAN BROWN (Author, "Snitch: Informers, Cooperators & the Corruption of Justice"): Thanks, Michel. Thank you.

MARTIN: And part of the premise of your book is that there's a lot of misinformation in the middle-class mainstream about snitching. So when you say snitching, what are you talking about?

Mr. BROWN: You know, when I'm talking about snitching, I'm talking specifically in the book about cooperators in drug cases. And a cooperator is defined as someone who offers information to prosecutors in exchange for a more lenient sentence at the time of sentencing.

MARTIN: Is that what people in the street mean?

Mr. BROWN: This is the problem, is that, you know, there's a hugely wide kind of variation in what defines a snitch. It can be anything from a cooperator in a drug case to, unfortunately, someone who just happened to witness a crime -from a robbery to a murder.

MARTIN: It's your premise. In fact, you have a very provocative premise in this book.

Mr. BROWN: Right.

MARTIN: It's your premise that the real reason cooperating with law enforcement has fallen into disfavor…

Mr. BROWN: Right.

MARTIN: …is that law enforcement has been so dominated now by the drug war that mandatory minimums…

Mr. BROWN: Yeah.

MARTIN: …and sentencing guidelines have given prosecutors…

Mr. BROWN: Right.

MARTIN: …so much power that the only way…

Mr. BROWN: Yeah.

MARTIN: …to get a break is to turn in somebody else.

Mr. BROWN: Exactly.

MARTIN: And that because of that, the savvier you are, the bigger the fish you are, the better you are to manipulate the system by turning in somebody else, and that this kind of no-snitch culture is a reaction to that. But what makes you so sure of that?

Mr. BROWN: Well, we're now 20 years into our extraordinarily punitive drug policies that we have, which began in the mid-80s. These drug policies mandated extraordinarily long prison sentences for even minor crimes such as possession of five grams of crack. And five grams, by the way, is the equivalent to the weight of a nickel. And even Senator Jim Webb from Virginia recently said that these sentencing policies are, quote, one of the largest public policy experiments in our history.

So this is a huge, huge, profound shift in the criminal justice policy that began in the mid-80s. And part of that, it's more than just doling out, you know, extraordinarily long punishments for drug-related defenses. It's making cooperation central to getting a, quote, downward departure or reduction from those sentences, which has created a kind of game in which people lie and fabricate evidence about others.

And it's also a game where there are very few rules on the side of prosecutors. They do not corroborate an informant testimony with evidence. Drug investigations are cooperator and informant-led. It's not like DEA intelligence is picking the targets. You have the cooperators and informants.

MARTIN: You're saying cooperators and informants are the sole sum and the total of the case in many cases, the whole reason cases are being brought.

Mr. BROWN: They are indeed, yeah. One criminal defense attorney called the cottage industry of cooperators. You have very little incentive to do investigative work.

MARTIN: You talked about this, a story that got quite a lot of currency here in the Washington area. There was this video produced out of Baltimore...

Mr. BROWN: Right. Right.

MARTIN: ...called "Stop Snitchin." It caused huge outcry because Denver Nuggets player Carmelo Anthony appeared in this DVD and a lot of people were very upset. It was viewed as a slap at law enforcement and so forth. And your premise in the book is that this was actually a very misunderstood that, in fact, what this DVD was actually saying is what? You tell me.

Mr. BROWN: I went to Baltimore and interviewed the creator of the "Stop Snitchin" DVD, a guy named Rodney Bethea, who actually is not a drug dealer or a hustler, he is a barber in Baltimore. And, you know, according to him, what the DVD is about is it saying these drug laws that we have, have sort of created a system in which people think that they can get out on the street, hustle and do whatever they want and then simply roll over on other people and get a big reduction in their sentence and go right back to the streets again.

MARTIN: Now, I understand that you think that a lot of this no-snitching issue is related to anger, about the way the so-called drug war is being prosecuted. But why isn't this just witness intimidation? I mean, I could call a crime reporter in any city in this country and they would tell me about a violent crime where somebody gets gunned down and nobody saw nothing and that people say…

Mr. BROWN: Right.

MARTIN: …they are afraid to talk to the police. So why is this not just witness intimidation? Why is it really that complicated?

Mr. BROWN: It is. It absolutely is in many cases. And I think what I'd like to convey is that we have a federal criminal justice system that uses huge amount of resources to go after low-level drug dealers, yet, at the local and state level, we have an extraordinarily lack of resources to deal with actual witness intimidation.

MARTIN: But there are those who would argue that this is really a matter of a culture of at least, you know, the glorification of the thug or…

Mr. BROWN: Right.

MARTIN: …community indifference. And I'm going to play your short clip from - I know you know about this but CNN's Anderson Cooper spoke with rapper Cam'ron about snitching where Cam'ron claimed that he wouldn't snitch under any circumstances…

Mr. BROWN: Right.

MARTIN: …even if a serial killer lived next door to him. Let's play that clip.

(Soundbite of CNN's "Anderson Cooper 360 Degrees")

Mr. ANDERSON COOPER (Host, "Anderson Cooper 360 Degrees"): Is there any situation where you think it's okay to talk to the police?

Mr. CAMERON GILES (Rapper, Cam'ron): Yeah, definitely. Say hello. How you feel? Everything all right? Period.

Mr. COOPER: That's it?

Mr. GILES: There's nothing really to talk about with the police. I mean, for what?

Mr. COOPER: If there's a serial killer living next door to you, though, and you know that person is, you know, killing people, would you be a snitch if you called police and told them?

Mr. GILES: If I knew the serial killer was living next door to me?

Mr. COOPER: Yeah.

Mr. GILES: No, I wouldn't call and tell anybody on him, but I would probably move. But I'm not going to call and be like, you know, the serial killer is in 4-E.

MARTIN: Now, of course, this caused a huge outcry. Cam'ron had to apologize and say, you know…

Mr. BROWN: Yeah.

MARTIN: …what people say in situations like this. But a lot of people look at this and say, you know, there's just an attitude here. There's an attitude that says - that doesn't want to hold anybody accountable for anything they do no matter how destructive they are. What do you say to that?

Mr. BROWN: Well, actually, you know, the really interesting thing about the Cam'ron appearance is that the reaction to his appearance among the hip-hop world was uniformly negative. Everyone thought that his comments were idiotic, and they were. And everyone thought that they were unrepresentative of how people feel about this issue.

In my first book, "Queens Reigns Supreme," I sort of talk about how hip-hop assumed personas and stories of big drug dealers from the 1980s. And with Cam'ron, this is the case of hip-hop attempting to interpret what's going on in the streets. But instead, badly misinterpreting what's going on.

I mean, even if you talk to drug dealers or former hustlers and ask them what they think about someone who is a - as they call it, legitimate citizen, saying that they're not going to call the cops. They think that's totally ridiculous.

MARTIN: Have you talked to any prosecutors in the course of reporting this book, or have any of them read it since it's been out?

Mr. BROWN: I have talked to prosecutors, yeah. And…

MARTIN: How they are reacting to your theory?

Mr. BROWN: I think that they see cooperation as a necessity in building all kinds of cases. And I think that they're right, obviously. And I'm not saying that we need to scrap the whole cooperation process, because you obviously couldn't build cases if you did that. But I think where we disagree in a big way is on the sentencing guidelines. I think they see the sentencing guidelines as just. And I think they see the sentencing guidelines as having done a lot to reduce crime in the '90s. I actually don't happen to agree with that because I think, for example, in Canada, Canada had experienced very similar crime declines in the '90s but without incarcerating as many people as we did.

MARTIN: Ethan Brown is author of "Snitch: Informants, Cooperators and the Corruption of Justice." He joins us from WWNO in New Orleans. Thanks so much for speaking with us.

Mr. BROWN: Thank you.

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