Snitches Get Stitches

In late 2008, the following advertisement was placed in an alternative newspaper found in the Albuquerque (NM) area:
Snitches Wanted

People needed who hang out with crooks to do part-time work.
Make some extra cash! Drug use and criminal record OK. For information contact the Albuquerque Police Department at…
Several articles and blogs were critical of this approach by Albuquerque PD in that it would generate more false information being reported to authorities. This in turn would increase the risk of baseless investigations, increases in unnecessary search warrants, and false arrests. Several writers then culminated their informational pieces with examples of botched drug raids and violence against informants (and others) to argue against the use of police informants all together.

Only one of the articles mentioned what I believe is the most relevant aspect of the Albuquerque PD advertisement: the use of the word “snitch.”

In an article in USA Today, three short sentences touch on this issue:

Thomas Kern, chairman of Crime Stoppers USA, said he was "taken aback" by the ad. He said it casts all informants as "snitches" when potential witnesses are being pressured not to cooperate with law enforcement. "I think it may be sending the wrong message," he said.

A 2007 study conducted by the National Center for Victims of Crime explored the “snitching” issue and its impact on Boston-area youth reporting information to police. The research involved interviewing hundreds of urban young people to better understand police-community relationships and external pressures (e.g. gangs) involved in speaking with authorities.

The Center’s report describes the impact that the underground message of “snitches get stitches,” pervasive in music and street culture, has in deterring crimes being reported to police—especially by youth. Here is a portion:

The most common reasons youth gave for not reporting crime were that it wasn’t their concern or they did not want to be seen as a snitch, while they most often attributed their peers’ non-reporting to fear of being beaten up or killed. Interviews made clear that being labeled a snitch carries a price, not just of potential violence, but of ostracism by neighbors and peers.

Youth also gave reasons they deemed valid for reporting crime and breaking the “no-snitching” code, most notably when an injured victim needed help or when the crime was directed against themselves or their family members. In most cases, if youth felt there was a low likelihood of retaliation (e.g., if the perpetrators had no way of knowing who had reported them), they would be willing to report crime.

As evident from the excerpt, being called a “snitch” has a serious negative connotation attached. The researchers recommend that police and other government officials use strategies to counter the snitch label—approaches that encourage collaboration, specifically viewing young students as partners in reducing crime and creating safer communities.

I do not specifically have a problem with the Albuquerque PD advertising for crime information as long as the tips are simply a small part of building a case, and that proper controls are present to discard false reports and ensure high quality investigations with limited intrusions on citizens.

I think the police department’s error was to refer to participants as snitches; thereby, reinforcing the negative notion that citizens (especially young people) who provide information to police are snitches. It also emphasizes the need for police administrators to be cognizant of current research in the field. Had officials known or chosen to follow the recommendations in the National Center’s report, they could have avoided this mistake in association.

Not only does this story affect the law enforcement relations in Albuquerque, but it casts a negative light on crime prevention efforts by police agencies nationwide and further hampers officers trying to develop constructive relationships with citizens of all ages.