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July 23, 2014

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See No Evil

To tell or not to tell? Why the stop-snitching phenomenon is more complicated than you might think.

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Craig La Rotonda

Scene—Sierra Vista and Cambridge:

A bulky man stands sentry at the southwest entryway to Sierra Pointe Apartments, two pinkish buildings that bookend the aptly named Crack Alley. His head is on a constant, owl-like swivel, back and forth, forth and back, his wary eyes locked on anyone who approaches. He communicates with passersby with unblinking looks, knowing head nods and the occasional “What’s up?” The junkies, identifiable by body tics, facial sores, aberrant behavior (talking to themselves) and tattered threads seem to know when to approach their suppliers and how to make the illegal transaction look innocent, lest they draw undue attention and ruin their chance to get a fix.

Drug dealing is a 24/7 enterprise around here, crime a way of life for a small but particularly ruthless element. Sierra Pointe is widely acknowledged as one of—if not the—most dangerous neighborhoods in the Valley, so dangerous in fact that Sen. John Ensign nearly got it shuttered in 2003 and the Clark County Housing Authority refused to continue managing it. In just the last month, from May 22 to June 22, Metro received 484 calls for service within a mile radius—40 for stolen vehicles, 30 for assaults, 26 for narcotics and four for gun crimes. As recently as June 12, cops say a security guard fatally shot an attacker at Sierra Pointe.

The bulky man, whose forearms are tattooed canvases, is, along with his friends, very likely the reason cops are a constant presence in this neighborhood. Business card in hand, I approach him and say I’m working on a piece about snitching. “Snitching? That shit don’t happen around here. It better not,” he says. At this, he retreats into the complex, loudly announcing my arrival and intention. “You ain’t gonna get nobody to talk to you about that around here.”

He’s right. As I drive off, I’m reminded of an old saying that seems at once eerie and prescient: “Silence is the fence around wisdom.”

The mainstream media is generally the last to know, and by the time it catches on, the trend it’s highlighting ceases to be a trend. So it is with the stop-snitching movement. The first so-titled Stop Snitching DVD began circulating widely in 2004. In it some Baltimore thugs and Denver Nuggets star Carmelo Anthony chide former drug dealer Tyree Stewart’s informant work; Anthony told USA Today, “Tyree ran our neighborhood. Now he’s working with the state and the feds. You can’t do that. He turned his back on the ’hood.” Of course by then a see-no-evil ethos had for decades been a way of life in Inner City USA, insulation from the omnipresent violence plaguing their neighborhoods.

Anthony’s DVD cameo was part a confluence of events—the movement’s commercialization (“Stop Snitching” appeared on everything from hats to shirts to the subsequent DVD) and its Hollywood-ization (rappers denouncing turncoats, suburban youth wearing stop-snitching garb, heightened interest in websites like whosarat.com, purportedly the largest database of informants and agents)—turned McGruff the Crime Dog’s “Take a bite of crime” call for collective responsibility into a pop-cultural punch line. It should be an indictment of the perilous state of police-minority relations—the lamentable notion that many people would rather live in militarized neighborhoods than finger the criminals terrorizing their communities. Instead, “snitch” is now thrown about willy-nilly, applicable to any situation. Siblings call each other snitches, as in “if you tell mom, you’re a snitch.”

But the culture of snitching and the incipient rise of its anti-snitching counterpart are deadly matters. Rising murder counts in cities like Baltimore and Philadelphia have even prompted police to mount pro-snitching offensives, such as the Baltimore Police Department’s Keep Talking initiative and a system in the Boston Police Department that lets people text-message crime tips—using technology as a crime-fighting tool. (“When you complete your tip submission, for your safety, you should always delete all text messages from 27463 from your text message in box and out box,” BPD advises.)

To Snitch, or Not To Snitch?

Alex Adeyanju and Ryan McAfee take to the streets of Las Vegas to find out whether our citizens are snitching or keeping quiet. To snitch, or not to snitch, that is the question.

Reactionary as these moves seem, something had to counter flagging homicide clearance rates (generally defined as when a person has been charged, summoned or cautioned for the offense, or when a suspect has been arrested). Some large cities had single-digit clearance rates, compared to a national rate of 60 percent. In 1994, Metro’s 20.7 percent clearance rate for violent crimes was the lowest among police departments in cities of more than 250,000. (Metro cleared 1,946 of 9,421 crimes; the population was 779,200). Despite repeated calls, Metro didn’t provide current homicide and violent-crime clearance data.

Then, as now, gang crimes are particularly troublesome to investigate and solve. Getting residents in troubled areas in west, north and east Las Vegas has always been a tough, almost Sisyphean task, local gang-suppression experts say. Metro recently disbanded a three-detective unit inside its gang bureau formed last year to investigate homicides in West Las Vegas. The unit only solved two of nine cases.

An officer speaking on condition of anonymity says cops often identify suspects through tips and detective work, but can’t arrest them because no one in the neighborhood wants to talk and witnesses who initially agreed to testify often pull a Houdini right before they take the stand.

The notion of swift, fast and violent reprisals for turncoats was crystallized a few years ago here during a series of trials that decimated the Rollin’ 60 Crips—41 arrests and 37 indictments. The 60’s feud with the Gerson Park Kingsmen resulted in 42 shootings and 24 deaths, according to the FBI. In a news release announcing the indictments, Nevada’s then-U.S. Attorney Daniel Bodgen said the Rollin’ 60s “threatened witnesses with arson, physical abuse and murder, and committed drive-by shootings of witnesses’ cars and apartments to deter them from providing reports to law enforcement.” At trial, a female supporter of the gang told a television news crew that “snitches get stitches.”

An anonymity-seeking source with the county’s juvenile justice system says snitching is behind some of the latest retaliatory gang shootings and has paralyzed some students at high schools affected by violence. According to published reports, family members of Demontre Carroll heard his assailant call the 15-year-old Sierra Vista High student a snitch before killing him in front of his home on the 8000 block of Platville, near Decatur and Blue Diamond. California authorities say Carroll witnessed a gang-related double homicide in Riverside in 2006 and was slated to testify before the Riverside County District Attorney’s Office relocated his family here. Metro disputes the Riverside connection, claiming that Raymond Roseboy, the 15-year-old charged in Carroll’s killing, was mad because Carroll blabbed about their recent burglary arrest.

As the Valley grows, so do the number of communities held hostage by criminals. Places once unspoiled by inner-city ills, such as the Lake Mead and Hollywood area, are now victims of an unenviable calculus that makes criminal encroachment in your neighborhood a matter of when, not if.

How long before our worst neighborhoods are so criminally saturated that gangs begin extorting businesses, as outfits in Chicago, Los Angeles and New Orleans do? How long before our best neighborhoods are infiltrated by urban ills? It’s not uncommon to see Neighborhood Watch signs in Summerlin or hand-printed posters telling residents to watch out for suspicious people. How long before our youth are completely acculturated into proverbially pleading the Fifth when violence hits campus?

When 15-year-old Western High student Victor Bravo was killed in February, word hit the street fast: anyone who fingered the killer would get “merked,” or murdered. Thanks in part to brave students willing to speak up, police arrested fellow Western student Tevin Carr on suspicion of attempted murder.

Would you have the same courage? Should you be forced into making an unenviable decision, a decision many people in dangerous neighborhoods make every day—weighing self-preservation against community deterioration—one fraught with consequences, up to and including the possibility that you or your loved ones could pay the ultimate price—death—should you find yourself in that situation, what would you do?

On Kilgore and Exeter (near Lake Mead and Hollywood) I pull up, introduce myself to three men and get …nothing. No one wants to talk. Neither do two men whose lips only move when they take swigs of beer and puff on a blunt. I drive around the ratty apartment complex and happen upon a lone pedestrian. After I give a brief explanation about my story, he launches into a surprisingly coherent diatribe about being a one-man criminal enterprise, accountable only to yourself. He sells drugs, often in broad daylight.

“You see me, right, I’m by myself. Motherfuckers need to stop snitching. If they don’t, they might as well …”—he steps back on the sidewalk and mimics digging a grave.

Would you rat him out?

Scene—Van Ert and Englestad:

Like Humpty Dumpty, the old man sits on the wall. This is his ritual, something he’s done over and over for decades. From his stoop, he can see everything, and, in turn, everyone can see him, sitting totem-like. Cars drive by with their booming systems, as do motorists seeking shortcuts from Lake Mead to Carey, only to be slowed down by speed-inhibiting dips that, legend has it, deter thugs from rival neighborhoods from doing drive-bys over here because there are no quick escape routes. Spend more than 50 years in any place, the long-timer says—40-plus of which have been right here, in this modest, one-story house with a gate, impeccably washed truck and manicured lawn—and you’re bound to see the best and worst in people. Down the street, that house, he says, pointing with his eyes, not his fingers, that’s the party house—“lots of drinking and carrying on over there.” It gets on his nerves, but not enough to do anything about it. So he ignores it. Ignores the frequent gunshots, too, and, in fact, just about every other negative thing around here. No need to add undue stress to his retirement. “I used to be wild, too. But now I just keep to myself. If I see trouble, I go around it. These youngsters are rough. They have guns, and guns changed everything. We can’t go to the cops, because the cops can’t protect us.”

There’s a kernel of truth in his statement. The Valley’s wildfire growth has stretched police resources, so much so that the 850 new cops paid for by the 2005 quarter-cent sales tax, and the additional 850 positions that will open up if lawmakers approve another tax hike next year, will still leave local departments below the national police-resident ratio of 2.3 per, 1,000.

That means lengthier response times, longer waits for emergency calls and, for those in downtrodden communities, missed opportunities to establish the police-community connections so vital to turning bad areas around.

Alexandra Natapoff wishes the media-fueled comparisons between the Mafia’s code of silence, called Omerta, and the stop-snitching movement, would cease, chiefly because it’s a disservice to people trapped in urban communities sieged by thugs. Omerta demands total loyalty of its adherents, who are typically Mafiosi, says the Loyola Law School professor and expert on snitching culture, whereas anti-snitching efforts seek to silence everyone, even law-abiding citizens. “It’s not a good parallel comparison,” says Natapoff, author of 2004’s well-respected Snitching: The Institutional and Communal Consequences. “It’s disrespectful to suggest that community residents are complicit in crimes because they don’t want to talk to cops.”

Natapoff’s seemingly contradictory points—acknowledging that concerned citizens should feel free to contact police, but understanding that many won’t out of fear—help illustrate the conundrum many blighted communities face: Do I say something and risk reprisal or keep quiet and watch my quality of life deteriorate? Across the country and throughout the Valley, people have chosen the latter, cowed into silence by fears both perceived and real.

Citing a 10-year-old National Institutes of Justice report on the impact of gangs in poor and high-crime communities, Natapoff says insulation and isolation from society and a distrust of police built up over decades have created and coddled a culture of silence amid violence. Honest people in such places may not like cops, she says, but they don’t want them to leave either. Better police protection, improved response times and more respect in dealing with them, Natapoff says, would go a long way toward thawing relations. That people are afraid to talk to the police represents an opportunity for law enforcement to build bridges that may, one day, lead to the civic empowerment so many sheriffs say is crucial to residents taking back their neighborhoods.

“This fear teaches us something very important about the times we live in,” she says. “Police-community relationships are still fraught with mistrust; people don’t believe police can be trusted or that cops will protect them. This is something that can’t be learned from a T-shirt or a rap song or a DVD. Some in mainstream media have tried to reduce ‘stop snitching’ to sound bites when it is so much more broad.”

Broad it is. One could argue this is the eternal struggle of good (cops) against evil (criminals), with communities held hostage in the middle. Communities have to take a side. Either choice has its perils. Pick the cops and incur the wrath of neighborhood terrorists; choose the criminals and be an accomplice in the destruction (both physical and psychological) of your community.

Tough choice.

Robert Saleem Holbrook’s anti-snitching treatise, outlined in the Defenestrator prison activist newsletter, speaks to Natapoff’s point and could be, perhaps, the best explanation as to how snitching—and then the bigger backlash to snitching—became such a huge phenomenon.

“The ‘Stop Snitching’ slogan that has spread through urban America like a wildfire, which many refer to as a ‘movement,’ has emerged more so as an ‘urban phenomenon’ that is not organized or directed but rather is spontaneous and fluid. This phenomenon emerged out of the county and state prisons of America and was a legitimate backlash against unscrupulous law enforcement agencies striking deals with unscrupulous criminals to testify, truthfully or falsely, against their co-defendants or any other individual charged with a crime with whom the D.A. lacked the evidence to prosecute. It was born of prosecutors granting immunity and informant fees to criminals in exchange for their testimony only to see these same criminals leave prison and resume a life of crime in the hood. It was born of prosecutors striking deals that allow drug kingpins to keep the profits of their drug empires in exchange for their testimony against street level dealers that worked for them only to see these kingpins released to become bigger kingpins while on the payroll of the state and federal authorities. It was born of prosecutors striking deals with 30-year-old triggermen who murdered in exchange for their testimony against their 16-year-old co-defendants. It was born of grown men breaking under pressure providing statements to the police implicating a juvenile co-defendant as the ringleader of a murder. It was born of prosecutors striking deals with jailhouse informants who came forward time and time again claiming a prisoner ‘confessed’ their guilt in a casual conversation on the yard.”

Along the way, snitching became a too-vital part of our criminal justice system, so much so that only now are its embarrassing remnants coming to light. In more than 15 percent of cases of wrongful conviction overturned by DNA testing, an informant or jailhouse snitch testified against the defendant, according to the Innocence Project, a litigation and public policy organization dedicated to exonerating the wrongfully convicted. Northwestern University Law School’s Center on Wrongful Convictions notes that 51 of the 111 wrongful death penalty convictions since the 1970s were based in whole or in part on the testimony of witnesses who had an incentive to lie. The state of Illinois now restricts the use of jailhouse informants in capital cases. Not only should other states follow, Natapoff says, but all states should also critically examine how they use informants looking for leniency in their cases.

Lost in all the hubbub over snitching and anti-snitching is this small fact: If two people are guilty of something, what’s so wrong with one of them telling on the other, so long as both serve jail time?

Fresh from an eight-month stint in the Clark County Detention Center, King Spade (an alias) is happy to be among the free and away from the rats (people, not rodents) infesting the county lock-up. Used to be that snitches lived in protected custody, away from rivals and vengeful co-defendants. Now, he says, many are housed in the general inmate population, moving about freely and without fear of reprisal, as if they hadn’t violated the street’s code of silence. “I was in there with niggas who admitted they snitched to get their time reduced. Back in the days, you couldn’t be in general population with a snitch jacket on, you’d get dealt with.”

Over the years, Spade says the younger generation of thugs has little respect for time-honored street mores that demand that you never involve law enforcement in your personal affairs, choosing instead to take matters in your own hands. That means being a martyr to whatever your criminal cause is—he sold drugs in his West Las Vegas neighborhood. As such, if someone shoots at you, return fire; they rob you, you rob them; they kill one of your friends, you kill two of theirs—it’s all in a day’s work for a criminal, “G-code,” he calls it. And if you get popped for a crime, you knew what you were getting into. Do your time and don’t take anyone down with you. These days, people talk as soon as cops apply a little pressure.

Spade says anyone who thinks police can be trusted need only view videos from the 1965 Watts Riot or footage from the Civil Rights era, where blacks were beaten, hosed, attacked by dogs, shot and bombed. (He could’ve chosen any number of more recent news stories: Philadelphia cops beating three motorists; NYPD’s plunger attack on Abner Louima, etc.)

Law enforcement is the enemy, and trusting your enemy, he says, ensures defeat. “We’re civilians and cops are cops, and it’s unspoken street code that you’re not supposed to talk to the police. They’re not your friends; they’re your enemies. Snitching is going to the enemy; that’s like me being in the Army and going to the Iraq soldiers for help. OGs [original gangsters] in the ’60s and ’70s will tell you you couldn’t talk to police and still walk the streets. Now you have anonymous phone lines. You don’t even have to show your face to tell on somebody. And Metro and Northtown are the most corrupt police I’ve run across. They kill niggas for a living and have been doing it for a long time. How can you call them to help you?”

From Mafia trials to gang murders, witness intimidation has been a bane for District Attorney’s offices across the country. In recent years, prosecutors have blamed the stop-snitching ethos for silencing vital witness testimony. The local DA’s office declined comment on the effects of witness intimidation. Christopher Lalli, assistant district attorney for the criminal division, says he didn’t have any information about the snitching culture.

A frequent critic of the DA’s office, criminal defense attorney Jonathan McArthur comes off as a supporter (albeit a tepid one) of the DA’s office on this issue. In his experience, witness intimidation often surfaces when a victim is mad that the defendant is out of custody; he or she will contact the DA or the probation officer and say they are being intimidated. Documenting that your client isn’t intimidating people is tough, he says. “Typically, it’s the same DAs who claim their plaintiffs are being intimidated, which is a shame. Sixty-five percent of these claims are bogus, which hurts the 35 percent of these claims that involve really dangerous situations, such as gang neighborhoods where the criminals know where witnesses live and can exact retribution. Judges tend to be very receptive on witness intimidation, but neither the courts nor the DAs have the resources to protect witnesses who really need protection.”

Though the county DA’s 32-year-old Victim-Witness Center provides basic services such as escorts to and from court, assistance filling out forms and housing and feeding witnesses from out of state, county spokesman Dan Kulin says it’s not designed to serve as an FBI-style witness protection program; most of the cases it receives concern domestic violence. “It’s meant to make the clients’ dealings with the court easier, not to help them relocate. That’s the FBI’s job.”

Neither the local nor national FBI offices returned calls inquiring about witness protection efforts in Southern Nevada. Natapoff says witness protection is part of an answer that includes creating, from top to bottom, a more responsive criminal justice system. “A ‘Stop Snitching’ T-shirt is not an impediment to that.”

Taken together, you can argue that there’s little cause for optimism. There are too many puzzle pieces out of place. Sour cop-community relations. A justice system that rewards criminals for telling on criminals. Scant witness protection resources. Suddenly, for some, living in bad areas isn’t, well, so bad.

Scene—Walnut and Cecile:

On December 11 the area near the Walnut Cecile Community Center—referred to as The Nut on the streets—became the focal point for the type of media frenzy our tourism-based economy loathes: two assailants shot six high school students. The violence made national headlines. Eighteen-year-old Nicco Tatum was indicted by a grand jury on attempted murder; three others face charges in the case. On this early summer day, the only signs of life in the surrounding neighborhoods are of kids being kids—sliding down stairway banisters, playing in gravel-strewn lawns and kicking soccer balls back and forth in dilapidated play areas. Having scraped up enough money, a few head to McDonald’s for lunch, or the Stop N Shop (long nicknamed Stop and Get Shot), emerging with a champion’s haul of candy—Lemonheads and Now and Laters. Two boys who go to a nearby middle school run to my vehicle when I approach, all too eager to see what I want. They strike me as too friendly. They scan me and my truck and touch the pile of magazines on my front seat. Sure, they’ve heard of snitching, but no, it’s not something they would do. Why not, I ask, particularly if it helps get someone violent off the street, a person who hurt someone you care about? “I ain’t saying nothing because the homies would come back and get us.” They freeze when an aqua blue van cruises by slowly, its occupants’ faces obscured by tinted windows. Their attitudes change. “We don’t know anything,” the taller one says. “We gotta go.”

Mr. Long Beach (not his real name) has shot people and been shot, robbed victims and been robbed, kicked in rivals’ doors and had his doors kicked in. He’s seen friends get charged with murder because of snitches and given life sentences because they incriminated themselves. Affiliation with the Insane Crips has led to a life filled both with pain (shot in the leg and lower back at age 18) and redemption (he’d seen enough tragedy and didn’t want his sins visited upon his two children). Vegas has been his home for the better part of the decade, during which time he’s become a churchgoing father and hewed mostly to the straight and narrow path. Mr. Long Beach admits befriending gang members, both Crips and Bloods, though he mostly affiliates with Bloods—a no-no in his native Long Beach, but acceptable here because of a close relationship.

He says thugs in Vegas have elevated snitching to a new low. Or is it a new high? “In Cali, niggas snitch because they don’t want to do 60 years because the courts are passing out 100-year sentences in Cali like candy,” he says. “Out here, niggas will snitch just to get away from 30 days or two months in jail. A lot of people view snitching as self-preservation.”

Mr. Long Beach says meticulously planning crimes and thoroughly vetting your homies can reduce the need to snitch altogether—he acknowledges that, to law-abiding Las Vegans, these are extremely unsettling concepts. Rather than focusing on the stop-snitching movement, he advises criminals “to stop being sloppy.”

“You can’t do something stupid and be stupid. You can’t be a stupid nigga and rob somebody with a stupid nigga, then you’re putting stupid on top of stupid.”

If successful, the anti-snitching movement will restore the concept of us vs. them—thugs vs. cops—says Spade, fully acknowledging that it could worsen the quality of life in places hard hit by crime, poverty and sour police-community relations. “Do police really even solve the problem? Nine times out of 10, the problem still exists when they leave and, in some cases, it’s worse. Cops play co-defendants on each other to get people to snitch when they weren’t even going to.”

Two years after three people were fatally shot at a Memorial Day gathering in Berkley Square in a daylight assault that ranks as one of the most brutal in Valley history, no one’s been brought to justice. Police know identities of the suspects but can’t charge them because no one will talk.

I ask Spade to defend his logic against the grim reality of the streets: abetting criminals has made violent neighborhoods more violent and has made all of society less safe, even for the people he loves. “It’s true that by not snitching criminals will remain on the streets, but you will always have killers and thugs out there. The bottom line is you’re not supposed to talk to cops. I don’t care what the situation is. Not telling if someone robbed a house deserves the same street code protection as not telling if someone killed someone. One sin isn’t greater than another one, to me. My OGs instilled see-no-evil in my heart. Repercussions for the streets on snitching are way worse than anything the law can do.”

If Spade isn’t the only one who feels this way, crime in the Valley could get worse. When there’s no respect for—or even a healthy fear of—the rule of law, entropy prevails. Is it even worth trying to reprogram mindsets? Are police resources better deployed keeping other neighborhoods safe and trying to limit the carnage in places in western, eastern and northern parts of the Valley?

Mr. Long Beach says a friend of his, a member of a local Bloods gang, is trying to rebuild his reputation after rumors that he snitched surfaced in the aftermath of a nightclub shooting. Cops took statements, sparking neighborhood innuendo that his friend fingered the trigger man, when he didn’t. “Homies in the hood now don’t want to fuck with him because of this. He got stole on [hit]. If a homeboy will do this to a homeboy, then what will he do to an enemy?”

Just because someone wears a “Stop Snitching” shirt, says Mr. Long Beach, doesn’t mean they won’t spill the beans if they’re facing jail time. “A lot of people who say they won’t snitch haven’t been in the situation that serious to warrant it: if you have gun and attempted murder cases on you, will you tell? Are you willing to go down for your homeboy?”

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