Snitch and Die

April 3, 2006

Despite the growing, almost cult-like following enjoyed by television's "The Sopranos," not everyone is enamored by the business of organized crime. Nor do many Americans see Middle Eastern terrorists as the greatest threat to their security. In a growing number of urban neighborhoods, the reality of witness intimidation—with threats and actual killings—is the primary face of terror. It is called "snitch and die."

Witness intimidation, especially in connection with drug-related and violent crime, is a clear and present danger to urban residents who not only fear violence in their neighborhoods but also dread reprisals for testimony they might give to incriminate the perpetrators of crime.

Law enforcement officials bemoan a stunning lack of convictions—whether through acquittal or dismissal—due to a lack of viable testimonies from witnesses. While criminal defense attorneys press for the rights of the accused, public officials are trying to devise legislative and administrative measures that will bring perpetrators to justice and ensure the safety of troubled neighborhoods while also guaranteeing the rights of the accused.

Witness intimidation received national attention in 2002 when seven persons were killed in Baltimore by an arsonist determined to prevent witnesses from testifying in a high-profile crime case. This year in Philadelphia, intimidation dominated headlines when six witnesses recanted testimony given to police about the murder of middle-school student, Faheem Thomas. (One witness was coached by her father to say she didn't remember anything.) And the March trial of the Chester, Pennsylvania street gang, Boyle Street Boys, revealed the execution of a federal witness in 2001.

All of this would be tragedy enough if it were confined to a few communities. Unfortunately, the practice is growing and becoming part of an urban subculture with implications for behavior in suburban and rural areas as well. Snitch and Die T-shirts are sold in stores, by sidewalk vendors, and on the internet. CDs offer the message through rap artists such as Master P, The Game, and G-Unot (with rock bands picking up the refrain). In Baltimore an underground DVD was circulated soon after the 2002 arson killings to proffer the dangers of witness testimony to an already frightened population.

Sadly, fear of intimidation is not the only enemy. At a press conference to announce her request for a million-dollar municipal fund for witness protection, Philadelphia District Attorney Lynne Abraham cited "an erosion in the community's confidence in law enforcement" as another reason for witnesses not to come forward. Her plea was framed by an alarming number of unsolved murder cases in Philadelphia: 178 out of 380 in 2005.

Philadelphia has had access to some federal and state funding for witness protection and relocation. Maryland has made witness intimidation a felony. But addressing intimidation requires more than these measures. Abraham's concern about loss of confidence in law enforcement is being addressed by groups like the Ten Point Coalition in Boston, where local ministers serve as liaisons between police and the community, helping to hold them accountable to one another. In Baltimore, the community organization BUILD offers assistance by receiving information from residents and communicating with law enforcement.

However, the empowerment of citizens requires more than witness relocation and the help of community liaisons; empowerment requires the recovery of confidence to speak in the first place. Public officials need to stop crime and restore community confidence in law enforcement. Snitch and Die must not be allowed to remain the primary threat to homeland security for the residents of our communities.

—Harold Dean Trulear, Professor, Applied Theology
    Howard University School of Divinity