PHILADELPHIA - It's one of Philadelphia's hottest - and most controversial - - fashion statements: T-shirts and hats that say, "Stop Snitchin.'"
Those who wear and sell the shirts say it's a style, a fad, the in-look - like Jay-Z's oversized, striped, button-down shirts were a few months back.
But these shirts are far more sinister, with some picturing guns, crosshairs and messages that advise: "Don't Talk 2 to Police."
The implicit threat is particularly disturbing given that witness intimidation has been repeatedly cited by police and prosecutors as a major problem in the city.
Investigations into crimes as heinous as the schoolyard slaying of 10-year-old Faheem Thomas-Childs last year have been hindered, police say, because witnesses have been afraid to step forward.
Dorothy Speight Johnson, for one, has been left speechless by the apparel - because, she says, a so-called snitch could have saved her son's life.
Khaaliq Jabbar Johnson, 24, was shot seven times in December 2001. After the gunman was arrested, he was charged with another slaying the previous July.
"Had someone said something or given information earlier, my son would still be alive today," said Johnson, founder and executive director of Mothers in Charge, an antiviolence organization.
Sellers and wearers insist that the shirts should not be taken that seriously. It's a cross-cultural trend, they say.
"They sell fast. It's mostly young people, but people you wouldn't even expect to buy 'Stop Snitchin' - guys with suits and ties - come in," said Kris Hardy, assistant manager of the Lids store in Philadelphia's Gallery Mall. "As soon as we get them, they go right back out."
Those who fight crime and violence say the message given out by the apparel is inexcusable.
"It's a moral issue. Where does society draw the line of what's right and what's wrong?" asked Bilal Quayuum, cochairman of Men United for a Better Philadelphia. "Selling T-shirts to promote an issue that's wrong is wrong. Why don't you sell crack cocaine or guns? It's the same thing. You're destroying the neighborhood."
Children are taught that no one likes a tattletale.
But maybe that's wrong, said Baltimore City State's Attorney Patricia C. Jessamy, noting how a playground bully could easily grow into a street intimidator.
"We need to send a message early on when people do bad things, it's right to tell," Jessamy said.
Baltimore, said city police spokesman Matt Jablow, "has the dubious distinction of being the birthplace of the whole 'Stop Snitchin' movement."
About a year ago, a DVD of the same name appeared for sale on that city's sidewalks and drew national attention.
The two-hour disc sold for $10 and featured a stream of rants against people who cooperated with police. The speakers - seen in bars and bedrooms and on the streets - flashed guns and jewelry, threatened individuals and their families, and used what appeared to be illegal drugs and alcohol while making one point: Snitches get stitches, and that's if they're lucky.
In May, the department put out its own DVD, "Keep Talking," which boasts of the recent arrests. Officers have given away 1,000 copies of the video and plan to make a follow-up.
From the original DVD, however, came the T-shirts and hats, now printed by numerous companies. In Philadelphia, they can be found in malls, in street-front stores, on sidewalk kiosks. They are on sale in front of City Hall, up in Cheltenham, down in West Philadelphia.
District Attorney Lynn Abraham sees nothing redeeming about the new fashion.
"It feeds into the witness-intimidation fear that so many people in the country feel. Don't get involved. Turn a blind eye. Don't help anyone. It's the absolute opposite of what good moral teaching tells us," Abraham said.
She pointed to the case of Faheem Thomas-Childs, 10, as one in which frightened witnesses were hampering the pursuit of justice. Faheem was caught in the crossfire on Feb. 11, 2004, as groups of men shot at each other outside his Philadelphia school.
Two men were arrested. As many as five others may have been involved. No one has volunteered any names, although the shooting occurred on a busy corner at about 8:30 a.m.
"You can't tell me they don't know who did it. Everybody knows who did it," Abraham said. "I can tell you the message on the streets is 'Don't come forward.'"
Inspector Bill Colarulo, Philadelphia Police spokesman, said he was against anything that hindered communication between the police and the community.
"Why anybody would not want to give police information regarding somebody who kills children, for example, is beyond me," Colarulo said.
But there's not much that law enforcement can do about the shirts, the hats or the DVDs. Sellers and wearers have a First Amendment right to free speech.
"We're confident the vast majority of the public will see these for that they really are: a cheap ploy by some people to gain attention," Colarulo said.
And even if the look doesn't fade fast, officials should be comforted by the fact that, for some people, these really are just shirts with words.
Christopher Turner, 21, has a "Stop Snitchin'" spin-off: "Criminal Minded." The Philadelphia resident works with the mentally handicapped and has never been arrested.
"It's looking tough, acting tough," Turner said. "People see 'Criminal Minded' and think I'm tough. It's a front."
He bought the shirt, he said, to match a pair of sneakers.
Also visit our "Informants: Resources for a Snitch Culture" section.
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