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May 6, 2006 - Charlotte Observer (NC)

Wearing A Warning On Snitches

Community Backlash Blamed; Police Outraged

By Fred Kelly

Return to Drug War News: Don't Miss Archive

In malls across the Carolinas, young shoppers pay $15 to $30 for T-shirts with a controversial message: "Stop snitching."

It's a plea urging crime witnesses not to cooperate with police. "That's our No. 1 seller," said Karim Kara, president of a local store, who sees the shirts as a fashion trend popularized by rap music. Police, prosecutors and some black community leaders worry that an anti-police street movement is moving into the mainstream. Across the country, stop-snitching shirts and DVDs have sparked debate about witness intimidation, free speech and relations between police and African Americans. In Charlotte, law enforcement officials say they have used informers appropriately in most cases by using their tips and corroborating it with other evidence.

"You won't make many arrests unless you can get people to talk," said Mecklenburg Deputy District Attorney Bart Menser.

"It's a necessary and valid part of police work." But the shirts reflect the attitude in some neighborhoods, said William Anderson, 21, as he left a court hearing where he says a larceny charge against him was dismissed.

"If it ain't your business, you stay out of it."

Snitch Stigma

There has long been a stigma attached to people who give information to police, and it's become more prominent in recent years with the T-shirts and Internet sites. In Massachusetts, a judge banned the shirts from state courtrooms, saying they intimidated witnesses.

In Charlotte, the reaction has been more subdued, but Charlotte-Mecklenburg Police Chief Darrell Stephens said he is concerned because the shirts "send the wrong message."

At Eastland and Concord Mills, shirts carry different sayings: "Snitches Get Stitches" and "Ditches Are For Snitches."

Merchants said they sell anywhere from two to 10 shirts a day to teens and men in their 20s, though sales have tapered off from a peak last fall. Items are also sold on Web sites.

Drug Enforcement

The stop-snitching shirts, legal experts say, are part of a backlash among some people against the war on drugs. Since the 1980s, law enforcement has made record numbers of arrests and increasingly turned defendants into informers. The U.S. Sentencing Commission, which set sentencing standards for federal court, reports that one in three drug prosecutions involve "substantial assistance" from informants. Providing information makes defendants eligible to receive more lenient sentences.

Defense attorneys say they are alarmed because informer testimony is now a leading cause of wrongful convictions.

In North Carolina, at least eight people since the 1970s have been wrongly convicted and sentenced to death based on testimony from informants, according to data from a Northwestern University study and the Death Penalty Litigation Center in Durham. There was at least one case in South Carolina.

The mistakes add to perceptions, particularly among blacks, that the criminal justice system is unfair, said Norman Butler, a Charlotte defense attorney.

"When people have bad experiences with law enforcement their thinking is that its just better to let (police) find out things on their own," Butler said. Community response Charlotte Police Capt. Eddie Levins said he doesn't anticipate the shirts making it any harder for police to convince citizens to come forward. But the use of informants has set off a counter movement in the African American community, where one in four black men between ages 20 and 29 is behind bars or on parole or probation largely due to drug arrests, said Alexandra Natapoff, a professor at Loyola Law School in Los Angeles. In neighborhoods she studied with the highest crime rates, she says, one in 12 black men is an informer.

Many black citizens are unhappy because the informants often commit new crimes after receiving leniency from prosecutors, Natapoff said. The stop-snitching movement "is a way the community is showing that law enforcement is failing," she said. "So many feel like they can't trust the police."

In Charlotte, opinion is divided over stop-snitching shirts and other items. Some like, Judy Williams, are afraid the shirts will make witnesses more reluctant. "It's terrible," said Williams, head of Mothers Of Murdered Offspring, which helps families of homicide victims. "You are making people feel bad about doing the right thing."

Levins said he is offended by stores that sell them. "It despicable," Levins said. "You are supporting a lifestyle that is wrong."

The no-snitching shirts have existed for a few years, but didn't gain popularity here until late last year, merchants said. Young shoppers said their peers wear the shirts because they have no respect for police informants. Others said it is a harmless fashion trend. Diamond Davis, who was recently shopping at Eastland Mall, said he would not buy a stop-snitching shirt because the saying is so common, it's cliche. But he explained why someone would: "It's the unwritten code of the street."

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