'Stop Snitching' Movement Confounding Criminal Justice

The "no snitch" ethic is prevalent in hip hop culture and in many urban communities. How does it impact the criminal justice system? David M. Kennedy is the director of the Center for Crime Prevention and Control and professor of anthropology at John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York City.

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FARAI CHIDEYA, host:

We just heard about criminal defense, specifically public defenders. But what about victims? In some cases, even when people see a crime, they turn a blind eye. Witnesses to crimes involving things like gang activities can often be scared away from giving information to police. And it doesn't help that a "stop snitching" ethos has been promoted by some hip-hop artists. So does the pressure on witnesses not to speak up hurt neighborhoods? We're going to talk that over with David M. Kennedy, director of the Center for Crime Prevention and Control at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York City. Welcome, David.

Mr. DAVID M. KENNEDY (Director, Center for Crime Prevention and Control): Hello.

CHIDEYA: So what's this "stop snitching" culture about?

Mr. KENNEDY: Race.

CHIDEYA: What do you mean by that? That's a very blunt answer.

Mr. KENNEDY: Yep. Well, we need to be blunt about this and we need to be honest about what's going on. So the way you introduced it - I'm going to abuse you a little bit here. The way you introduced it is the way this usually gets framed. Which is, it's witness intimidation, it's stuff like hip-hop spreading these, you know, insurgent ideas. And both of those things matter. They don't matter as much as people think they do.

What is really going on is that, after centuries of bad treatment at the hands of the outside world, and law enforcement is part of that outside world, most recently enormously exacerbated by 20 years of drug enforcement and a mass incarceration policy in this country. It has become mainstream thought in many minority, especially African-American communities, that law enforcement is the enemy, and good people do not treat with the enemy. So this is not primarily fear, and it's not primarily recent, you know, special cultural influences.

Again, those things matter. But this is mostly the price we're paying for American history and especially for having 2.2 million people in prison, most of them drawn from very troubled neighborhoods. They're mad, and they're disengaging.

CHIDEYA: Well, OK. We talk a lot on this show, and particularly during our special series this month, about the racial disparities. But in Baltimore, for example, a few years ago there was a woman named Angela Dawson. And she and her entire family, her husband, their five children were burned to death...

Mr. KENNEDY: Yeah.

CHIDEYA: By a drug dealer, because she was informing on the drug dealers. That's a case that no one can argue. You can talk about history, you can talk about disparities. But in that case, when you have a family burned to death, I mean, what's the resolution for this whole process of disengagement from law enforcement?

Mr. KENNEDY: Well, there are a couple of pieces to it. One is that first we need to be honest about what's going on, in both directions. So one is, we need to recognize the problem for what it really is. And incidents like the Baltimore fire-bombing properly get enormous attention. What doesn't get that kind of attention is the every-day intrusive penetration of law enforcement into these communities. And even more important, the way in which that law enforcement work is viewed by the community.

These are communities in which the drug problem has not been solved. The violence problem has not been solved. In which - in Baltimore, we'll stick with Baltimore, 60 percent of the younger African-American males in the city are under judicial supervision as we speak. Between 16 and 30, 60 percent or better are in prison, in jail, on parole, on probation or on pre-trial release. Those are folks who, even if they've calmed down and want to lead good middle-class lives, they can't. They've got records, there's no reason for them to finish school. No reason to take entry-level jobs. The streets are pretty much all that are left to them.

CHIDEYA: Well let me - I just want you to tell me quickly, because we don't have much time. Apparently, High Point, North Carolina, has found some ways of dealing with this.

Mr. KENNEDY: Yeah.

CHIDEYA: What are they?

Mr. KENNEDY: So we tell the truth about this stuff. So law enforcement says to the community, we haven't solved the problem, and without meaning to, we've done a lot of damage. And we'd like to do differently. The community for its part has to look inward and recognize that only the community can set strong standards for the way it wants to live, and that unless the community is saying very clearly, there's right and there's wrong, and gun violence and drug dealing is wrong, that nobody from the outside can carry that weight.

CHIDEYA: Well, David, unfortunately we have to end it here. But thank you so much.

Mr. KENNEDY: Sure.

CHIDEYA: David M. Kennedy is the director of the Center for Crime Prevention and Control at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York City.

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