Before I get started, I’d like to thank Alexandra Natapoff for the opportunity to contribute to this blog. I look forward to providing a different and (hopefully) interesting take on the problems and contradictions that arise from law enforcement’s dependence on, and society’s complicated relationship with, criminal informants.
So, let’s start with one of the contradictions:
When newspaper reporters and columnists write about informants outside the context of wrongful convictions, the tone tends to be one-note, excoriating “stop snitching” culture. A recent editorial by Bill Maxwell, a columnist for the St. Petersburg Times, is typical. (A couple of similar recent articles or columns are here and here.) Criticizing the black community in Tampa Bay for ostracizing three women who helped two police officers after they had been shot, he also takes on the “snitching ethos”:
If we do not call the police, we deserve the mayhem and dysfunction we suffer. When we conceal the identity of a murderer, we endanger everyone. When we turn our backs on drug deals near our homes, we cheapen the rule of law and destroy social values. In addition to its self-destructiveness, the snitching ethos alienates us from others, putting us at odds with normal behavior.
Maxwell’s points generally are well-taken, if not particularly novel.
But another recent column also caught my eye. This one, by Marc Hansen of the Des Moines Register, bears the headline, “Iowan mails Lefty’s arm back to bar, won’t snitch on thief.” Far less gruesome than it sounds, the story involves the theft of a mannequin’s left arm from a bar in San Francisco and its subsequent return by Doug Kintzle, a Des Moines resident who had it in his basement. Hansen explains that though Kintzle knows who stole the arm, the culprit is part of his cycling group, and Kintzle refuses to “snitch.” As Hansen says, “you have to respect that.” And I think he’s right: most people would have no problem with Kintzle staying mum and protecting his friend.
But why is the Maxwell’s “snitching ethos” bad, and Kintzle’s refusal to “snitch” good? Despite the presence of a stolen plastic arm, I ask the question non-facetiously: in both cases we’re talking about crimes that the police can’t solve without an informant’s help, yet in one case refusing to snitch is reprehensible and in the other it’s respectable.
(posted by Michael Rich)
Of course, there are numerous differences that may help explain the discrepancy, and prime among them is the relative severity of the crimes: murder in one case, and the theft of a piece of a plastic mannequin in the other. But Maxwell also argues that the failure to report drug dealing “cheapen[s] the rule of law and destroy[s] social values.” Isn’t drug dealing, arguably a malum prohibitum crime, less morally culpable than stealing? Doesn’t Kintzle also cheapen the rule of law by refusing to inform on the thief? Isn’t “do not steal” an important social value?
Or is the critical difference that Kintzle is refusing to snitch on a member of his cycling group and we respect the loyalty of those who bicycle together more than we do loyalties among neighborhood members? Or is it that petty theft within cycling groups is unlikely to foment more crime, while drug dealing will? Or that drug dealers tend to be poorer than cyclists? Or that Maxwell is talking about black communities and cycling is largely a sport enjoyed by whites?
Most likely, it’s a combination of some or all of these considerations that makes us comfortable with Kintzle’s silence and generally agree with Maxwell. But the question of where the line is drawn between bad snitching and good informing is infrequently considered and one that policymakers need to keep in mind when they tailor policies to encourage cooperation with the police.