Taboo On Informing Works Against Police

Julia Reynolds, Monterey Herald, May 15, 2007

Across the street from Salinas High School, clusters of teenagers gather.

School is out for the afternoon and, free of school dress codes for the day, the kids can wear what they want.

Some are wearing skater attire, a few have already changed into their Norteno red—gang colors—and one boy wears a T-shirt with a giant red stop sign on it.

“STOP Snitching,” the imprint says.

Across the county in Seaside, Margarito Martinez, 23, wears a Stop Snitching shirt he bought in Mexico City.

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Is the message a symptom of the ages-old distrust of police among communities of color, or a warning from gang members to would-be witnesses? Either way, the attitude makes it increasingly difficult for police to gather information and to solve crimes.

Teenagers and young adults are especially prone to perceived gang intimidation and they also harbor a distaste for reporting crimes to police, according to a new study released this month in Washington.

In “Snitches Get Stitches,” a report on youths, gangs and witness intimidation recently released by The National Center for Victims of Crime, researchers surveyed 680 young people in seven East Coast cities that, like Salinas, suffer considerable youth gang violence.

Researchers found that while attempts have been made to counteract the widespread anti-snitch movement with alternative hip-hop radio messages, most haven’t put a dent in young people’s attitudes.

The study’s authors found that most teens who did not report gang crimes said it was because “the crime wasn’t their concern” or “they did not want to be seen as a snitch.”

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Reluctance

Between 50 and 65 percent of teens who witnessed gang crime were likely to report it to a family member, but only 11 to 15 percent would report it to police, even if the teens themselves were the victims, according to the survey.

That means parents can act as a bridge between their children and police.

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And, the researchers said, youth-oriented campaigns to counteract the Stop Snitchin’ message can succeed only when authorities are “genuinely trying” to make crime reporting safer. That’s the challenge faced in Salinas by police and community activists hoping to thwart gang violence.

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Salinas Councilman Sergio Sanchez said many of his constituents believe that if they call 911 to report a shooting and request anonymity, a police officer will appear at their home anyway. That’s the last thing residents fearful of gang retaliation want—a patrol car in front of the house, they say, informs the whole neighborhood that their family has cooperated with police.

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At least that’s the idea. But it hasn’t always worked that way.

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Police Chief Dan Ortega acknowledged that while that rarely happens anymore, such mistakes are still possible. He said they have usually been a matter of “human error,” not department policy.

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Mistakes rare

Second Chance’s Contreras agreed that such mistakes are rare these days.

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Ortega acknowledged that certain police practices do add to peoples’ worries.

For example, officers routinely comb the neighborhood after a murder, he said, interviewing all residents. People who reported hearing shots might believe officers deliberately showed up at their home.

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Sanchez suggested that the city should consider launching a campaign to teach residents that they should clearly specify to 911 operators when they do not want police coming to their home.

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That might require changing policies or protocol, he said, so that “the No. 1 priority is protecting the party. We shouldn’t allow anybody to make it hard for residents come forward.”

Donohue said the city is working hard on getting the word out.

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Meanwhile, officials say the safest route for worried residents is simply to use the police department’s tip line.

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[Editor’s Note: A PDF of the National Center for Victims of Crime’s report, “Snitches Get Stitches: Youth, Gangs, and Witness Intimidation in Massachusetts,” can be read here.]

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