New York University Press (2009)
Reviewed by Ernesto Aguilar
Incidents such as that of activist Brandon Darby informing on fellow activists, and the Tulia, Texas drug arrests scandal are but two examples of a trend that law enforcement has increasingly relied on as a method for policing, but which is increasingly returning disastrous results. The use of individuals to provide information leading to arrests, in exchange for lesser charges, but whose offered details are often fraught with inconsistencies, is the subject of Alexandra Natapoff’s searing read Snitching: Criminal Informants and the Erosion of American Justice.
Use of snitches has been going on far longer than the Darby affair. African-American communities have seen law enforcement use informants to combat drugs and urban blight at the cost of community cohesion. In these neighborhoods, Natapoff says, police methods are more intrusive and the penal process treats young Black men harshly. Such tragedies make informants plentiful. The result of snitch culture in the Black community is essentially that police permit informants to engage in criminal activity, foment distrust in neighborhoods and encourage retaliation. In the end, informants do little more than destabilize Black communities and undercut police legitimacy as well as individuals’ belief in fairness.
However, it is the stories of desperation that dot Natapoff’s writing which are incredibly striking. Fundamentally, the author reminds us, informants are people trying to escape long jail sentences by providing assistance to police. Such a relationship lends itself to producing information as a matter of self-preservation, and that their continued performance will keep them out of jail and presumably able to break the law so long as they are of use to law enforcement. Therein lies the criminal justice conundrum, of what reliance on snitches says about the justice system itself.
The hip-hop culture is the best-known proponent of the ’stop snitching” phenomenon. The character of ’stop snitching,” the author suggests, is a symbol of the Black community’s distrust of police in the wake of the War on Drugs and the long sentences young Black men receive for what is often faulty testimony. Exploration of that relationship is offered here, and is probably one of the best presentations of why the music culture has been so associated with resistance to snitching.
The author acknowledges social movements have long known the problems caused by informants. In Snitching, Natapoff points out informants end up acting with impunity, and their use raises important constitutional questions related to interference with organized groups’ First Amendment rights. Political organizers should carefully note the behavior sanctioned for informants, as the actions now famous in the Darby case — most importantly accusations the two activists arrested were coaxed into illegal activity — have long been permitted of informants.
To be clear, the author is not opposed to the use of police utilizing plea bargaining of the nature described in the book. However, Natapoff argues law enforcement’s rampant use of informants has implications that threaten transparency and in some ways democracy.