Daniel Rubin: 'Stop snitching' culture runs deep in Philly

Posted: August 04, 2011

Reformers studying witness intimidation in Philadelphia would be wise to heed my colleague Mike Newall's story, published Wednesday, about a teenager who was scheduled to testify about being shot - until someone sent his mother a frightening message.

Newall counted at least 17 rounds fired into Sharletta Ambey's lovingly kept Wynnefield rowhouse.

"Snitching is for punks," her 19-year-old son, the once-willing witness, tells her.

She asks him to reconsider.

"Why," he replies, "so they can kill y'all?"

Task forces are recommending turning courtroom cameras on spectators to catch potential intimidation, and moving from preliminary hearings to grand jury indictments so witnesses don't have to run into those they're fingering.

Those hoping to fix the courts might also want to talk to Maria Kefalas, a St. Joseph's University sociologist who is wrapping up three years of fieldwork on the city's code of silence.

Kefalas and partners Patrick Carr and Susan Clampet-Lundquist learned that when it comes to cooperating with police, there's a set of rules - practical and reasonable, even - that let those who live in dangerous neighborhoods survive.

They interviewed nearly 150 black, white, and Latino youths, male and female, from ages 15 to 24, living in high-crime, economically depressed sections of North and West Philadelphia. Kefalas didn't come away encouraged.

Her team identified 2004 as the year Stop Snitching moved into the mainstream, when the NBA star Carmelo Anthony appeared on a DVD that threatened violence against those who cooperated with police. Three years later, when the rapper Cam'ron told 60 Minutes that he wouldn't tell on a serial killer who lived next door, critics blamed hip-hop culture.

Kefalas says that's backward: "Hip-hop is a very nimble mirror that picks up what's out there, packages it, and sells it to kids."

The decision to not cooperate, she says, is a toxic byproduct of saturation policing, mass incarceration, and the entrenchment of drug dealing in neighborhoods where it's the only way to get paid.

She quoted some numbers. In 2008, Philadelphia police questioned more than 570,000 drivers and pedestrians under the stop-and-frisk policy. Meanwhile, Pennsylvania's incarceration rate between 1980 and 2009 increased fivefold.

"People think: We need to protect the community from this unpredictable criminal-justice system that's shipping everyone off to jail," she says.

The bad news, she found, is that even people who live within the law are expected to not snitch. The good news, is that some snitching is thought to be more tolerable than others. For instance, it is OK to help police catch a child molester, a rapist, or someone who assaulted a woman.

Then, the rules get fuzzy. Would someone's grandma be a snitch if she talked to police? Two-thirds of the blacks and Latinos and one-third of the whites said yes. Kefalas added some context, saying the whites interviewed tended to be from slightly less crime-ridden neighborhoods.

One young man, an African American drug dealer, told researchers he wouldn't retaliate. "Older people," he said, "they don't want no violence at all. They just want peace because they're, like, old, and they just want to relax."

Some said that they wouldn't hurt Grandma, but might vandalize her property. Some said Grandma was in no danger unless she happened to rat out people selling drugs on her corner. "Now she's in some risk of danger," said a Latino male with a criminal record.

Kefalas said her subjects view the police as an occupying force. "There is a tragic conflict," she said. "Police want to stop the blood in the streets. And people say, 'We're afraid of you. We don't trust you. Plus, we don't think you can stop the blood in the streets.'

"The only thing both sides agree on is that there's a war going on."

Contact columnist Daniel Rubin at 215-854-5917, drubin@phillynews.com

or @danielrubin on Twitter. Read his blog at philly.com/blinq.

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