The Problem With Snitching

If you thought you had cancer what would you do? If you were Deon (a pseudonym), a 14-year-old from Englewood, you would get to a doctor as quickly as possible. However, when asked what Deon would do if someone were threatening him with violence, Deon, a slight, upright star student, stated that he would have to "take care of it himself." Why is it that, although statistically speaking, Deon's life is far more threatened by violence than by cancer, he would seek help to battle cancer, but feels he would have to suffer in a homemade battle against the far greater and looming enemy of violence?

This summer I had a good fortune of working with about 30 African-American boys and young men, ages 11-17, to talk about preventing violence in the Englewood community. This is the third year for the Englewood Gun Violence Prevention Program, a program started by the Institute on Social Exclusion at the Adler School for Professional Psychology in collaboration with Teamwork Englewood. Many of the participants see the program as a safe place to discuss sensitive issues.

The issue that emerged that day was snitching. For the last decade or so, the Chicago police have bemoaned an anti-snitching campaign that has become the law of the street in most large cities in the U.S. "Snitching" was defined by the members of the group as calling or cooperating with the police to give them information about a crime that could potentially get the perpetrator(s) locked up.

This group of boys is a smart bunch that overwhelmingly cares about their families and their community. If they want so badly for violence to stop, why wouldn't they want violent offenders to be taken to task for their crimes? It turns out that they have some very compelling reasons:

1) They don't want to get killed. There is a very real threat of retribution if anyone finds out who gave information to the police that lead to the conviction of those responsible. These boys and young men have to remain neighbors with those they see using weapons, and they don't want to do anything to make the threats against their lives any larger than they already are.

2) They don't want to be labeled a "snitch." There were stories of people already detained who told on others to get lighter sentences, or who cooperated with police, or even school officials. In these cases, these individuals were stigmatized with the label "snitch" or "stool pigeon." In large and small ways these people, if they remain in the community, are robbed, threatened, or battered regularly and become designated "whipping boys" of the community.

3) They don't want to be a part of getting any one locked up. Englewood is a community that has suffered a gutting by this country's policies that appear so efficient at ending viable futures, particularly for the poor, and for men of color. These go-to policies include arrest, prosecution, imprisonment, and being evermore banned from legal work after conviction for even relatively small drug offences. Contrary to popular belief, there are very few opportunities for clearing a criminal record if there are any felonies on that record. And for youth of color that are disproportionately tried as adults, a crime committed at 15, before the brain is even fully developed, can end up effectively curtailing an entire future.

These boys and young men are caught between a rock and a hard place, although I do think a solution is within reach. I believe it a mistake, however, to think that the police are going to solve this problem. Instead, I pressed the boys for viable solutions. "If someone you know is in a stick-up crew, what would you do?" The answers came flying: "I'd tell them robbing is bogus!" "I'd talk to my pastor," "I'd talk to Mr. Mike from Teamwork Englewood," or "I'd call CeaseFire," or "I'd tell my mama to talk to their mama."

If we are creative, there are many ways to dissuade those we care about from doing destructive things. The boys cited using negative peer pressure as one way to stop bad behavior. All the other solutions required not law enforcement, but other adults to step up and be pro-active about getting help and positive intervention for kids who need help to change. As caring adults, it is incumbent upon us to build a society that does not force kids to believe that their only viable choice is to take care of it themselves. Leaving our children to suffer or to incarcerate wrong-doers without proper resources to help change their thinking and their choices is predisposing future generations to a cancer of a deadlier kind.