Image: "Snitch and die" graffiti
WCAU-TV
A graffito on a street in Bristol Township, Pa., threatens witnesses to a homicide.
By M. Alex Johnson Reporter
msnbc.com
updated 1/22/2008 3:38:33 PM ET 2008-01-22T20:38:33

Saying they are frightened that a “no snitching” code is taking root in American society, political and civic leaders across the country are pushing witnesses to find the courage to step forward and help police investigate violent crimes.

The campaign has taken on added urgency with the pending release of a sequel to “Stop F***ing Snitching,” a notorious DVD blamed for glamorizing street violence in Baltimore and intimidating witnesses to keep them silent. The DVD circulated nationally — thanks in part to a performance by professional basketball star Carmelo Anthony — inspiring “Stop Snitching” caps and T-shirts and a rap music subgenre that has attracted superstar performers like Snoop Dogg, Ice Cube and The Game.

Urly Media is promoting “Stop Snitching 2” as a “shockumentary” meant “to show the reality of hard times on hard streets.” In a trailer for the DVD on Urly Media’s Web site, a small child is shown waving a large revolver and smoking what appears to be a marijuana joint, a man is shown firing a gun into the air, and numerous people talk about the need to kill “rats” and “snitches.”

“This snitching thing is an ongoing thing. You hear it everywhere — don’t snitch, don’t snitch,” said Gloria Fant, whose 18-year-old grandson was shot and killed last year in Bristol Township, Pa. In July, someone scrawled the message “Snitch and Die” in chalk on a street near the scene.

Neighborhood residents said the graffito was left on the street for almost a month before it was finally removed, sending a chilling message to witnesses.

“It’s a rule, code of the street,” said Kyle Gallishaw, who lives in Bristol Township. “If you’re not from the street, then you wouldn’t understand.”

Silent witnesses cripple prosecutions
Some commentators argue that mainstream culture doesn’t understand the phenomenon, maintaining that the “stop snitching” message is targeted at criminals who implicate others to save themselves.

“In the black community it is commonly understood that a snitch is a crafty criminal who negotiates a deal for himself by telling on others,” Edrea Davis, author of the novel “SnitchCraft,” wrote in an essay on Baller Status, a Web site devoted to African-American issues.

“Since the days of slavery, providing information to authorities to gain favor has been viewed negatively,” wrote Davis, who called the stop snitching movement a “hoax.” “Judas would be considered a snitch primarily because he was one of the disciples, one of the crew.”

But police and families of crime victims say the intention is irrelevant — what is heard on the street is that any cooperation with the authorities is dangerous.

“They’re afraid to get involved,” said Bernie de la Rionda, a state prosecutor in Jacksonville, Fla., for 24 years.

“What I have seen is a dramatic increase in witnesses who have seen a murder occur — which is as violent a crime as you can get — and they don’t want to become involved because they don’t want to be labeled a snitch,” he said.

Law enforcement officials in other communities large and small agreed that the “no snitching” ethic was making their jobs significantly more difficult and leaving violent criminals on the streets.

For example, police in Nashville, Tenn., remain unable to identify credible witnesses to the shooting of Demarius Lacey, 17, who was killed as he talked with several people in broad daylight Sept. 5.

“In certain neighborhoods, they won’t talk to us because they are afraid of retaliation,” said Nashville police Officer Anna Maria Williams. “They are afraid of what their friends might say.”

Similarly, police in Rochester, N.Y., have made no arrests four months after Latasha Shaw, 36, was beaten and stabbed to death by what was described as a mob after she rushed to a street corner to help her daughter, who was being attacked. Police said that although a large number of people saw the killing, they have made little progress because of witness intimidation.

“The things that go on in this community are not a police problem. It’s a community problem,” said City Council member Adam McFadden, who said he had applied for a pistol permit and would personally offer armed protection to witnesses who would come forward in the case.

‘If someone will kill once, they’ll kill again’
The “stop snitching” campaign has galvanized many in Rochester besides McFadden. The outcry grew early last month after Keon Anderson, 19, was charged with second-degree murder in the shooting death of a convenience store clerk. The shooting came just six weeks after Anderson was acquitted of murder in another shooting when two key prosecution witnesses bailed out at the last minute.

One of the witnesses, a 13-year-old boy who showed up for court with a fat lip and other injuries, said he had been beaten up for cooperating with police. Subsequently, the other witness, a 14-year-old boy, was not called to testify.

“I’ve often said if someone will kill once, they’ll kill again, and those that protect murderers and follow the dreaded ‘do not snitch’ focus ... end up adding to the problem,” Rochester Mayor Bob Duffy said.

For witnesses, a violence-tinged dilemma
When witnesses do muster up the courage to cooperate, the consequences can be stark:

  • In Mesa, Ariz., a 38-year-old woman who reported a couple to the authorities for child abuse was kidnapped and beaten last summer and had the word “snitch” burned onto her face with a branding iron.
  • In Silver Spring, Md., Parris Pratt, 23, was sentenced to life in prison without possibility of parole in August for killing a 16-year-old boy she suspected of having given information to the police. Pratt fired two shots at the boy’s head, then stood over him and fired a third shot into his head. She returned to her car and began to drive off, but when she saw the boy move, she got out and shot him again in the head.
  • And in Baltimore — home to the original “stop snitching” movement — Carl Lackl, 38, was shot to death in July before he could testify as the main prosecution witness in a 2006 homicide. The suspect in the 2006 slaying faces murder charges in Lackl’s killing.

Political leaders and law enforcement agencies say the scourge of witness intimidation threatens to cripple the legal system, and they have undertaken dramatic initiatives to reverse the tide.

Confronted by an entrenched “don’t snitch” ethic in Philadelphia, where the murder rate surpasses that of larger cities like New York, Chicago and Los Angeles, Philadelphia’s new mayor, Michael Nutter, declared a crime emergency one hour into his term of office this month, strengthening the hand of the police.

“Instead of this campaign of ‘stop snitching,’ maybe we need to start one of ‘start snitching,’ because you’ve got to tell us what’s going on out there in these neighborhoods so we can get the people responsible for these crimes off the street,” said Charles Ramsey, the city’s new police commissioner.

Police plan to deploy 250 surveillance cameras across Philadelphia over the next 10 months to collect video evidence of crimes in which witnesses are mum.

“We’ve said it before, and we’ll say it again: A camera is a witness that will not be intimidated,” Deputy Police Commissioner Jack Gaittens said.

In Rochester — where McFadden, the City Council member, offered to protect witnesses himself — police and prosecutors are joining with Baber AME Church to blanket the city with billboards and bus placards encouraging cooperation with the authorities.

“We really also need to create some kind of better measure of how we are going to protect those that will come forward and will help to solve these cases,” the church’s pastor, the Rev. Marlowe Washington, said of the “You bet I told!” campaign.

Taking on thugs in the streets
And residents of Jacksonville, Fla., will soon see thousands of placards calling for public cooperation with police on public spaces and private lawns, thanks to Men Against Destruction-Defending Against Drugs and Social-Disorder, or MAD DADS, an anti-crime group with chapters in 16 states.

“We need to open up and start cooperating with police, even if it means turning in a friend, a family member, and even against the fear of retaliation,” said the Rev. Eddie Staton, the group’s national president.

The Jacksonville initiative, which seeks the involvement of thousands of individual residents, reflects a growing belief that the best answer cannot be provided by government officials’ telling people not to be afraid. It is an argument that must be made witness by witness, home by home, neighborhood by neighborhood.

After watching a television show that encouraged people to stop snitching, Marcus Hampton of Nashville came up with an idea of his own.

“DoSnitch is a way to go online and anonymously report crime,” Hampton said of the Web site he founded in May 2006, DoSnitch.com. With a click, people who see crimes can report them without fear.

“It’s aiding them in getting that dope dealer off the corner, reporting that guy who broke into your neighbor’s house,” Hampton said.

DoSnitch advises law enforcement officials when asked, but it remains a private effort, unaffiliated with any police force or government agency. To Hampton, it’s about the community’s determination to “crack that no-snitch code.”

The site, he said, lets people know “it’s all right to report a crime, it’s all right to save your family, save your neighborhood by taking those bad people off the streets.”

NBC affiliates KPNX of Phoenix; WBAL of Baltimore; WCAU of Philadelphia; WHEC of Rochester, N.Y.; WNDU of South Bend, Ind.; WRC of Washington; WSMV of Nashville, Tenn.; and WTRV of Jacksonville, Fla., contributed to this report.

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