The week of March 20, 2016

The controversial rise of ‘Stop Snitching’ Facebook groups

By Virginia Pelley

When a friend begged Andy Danna for some heroin for a sick acquaintance several years ago, he agreed to hook her up. Two years later, when, Danna says, he was clean and on a good path, cops kicked in the door and arrested him “cuz of a rat that sold coke and got busted. And then she turned C.I.,” according to the description of his closed, nearly 800-member Facebook group, Stop Snitching.

“The only problem i got with this all is my MOM passed while in lock up! And i could not put my mother to REST!!!!!!!!!!!” he continues. “so this is my little way of sayin FUCK YOU RAT I WILL EXPOSE YOU AND ANYONE LIKE YOU!”

Danna, 39, says he’s out of the game these days, but he still maintains his group, one of dozens of anti-snitching forums on Facebook. Some are little more than repositories for anti-snitching memes; others, like Danna’s, out specific informants, often based on court documents. The groups’ stated motivations can vary, from local counter-surveillance—“this group is so ppl who conduct business in PRICE HILL can do it a little safer!!!” reads one—to a much more nuanced stance on the very concept of “snitching.” One group offers its philosophy: “If they are some real revolutionaries like the Black Panthers or doing something real beneficial for their communities then they would be 100% right, people should not be ‘snitchin’. … On the other hand I see no reason for not ‘snitchin’ on someone who is murdering people indiscriminately, selling hard drugs to their own community and annihilating it even more just for their own gain.”

It’s an important distinction, pointing to a multifaceted understanding of what “snitching” entails. Some say the “stop snitching” norm has evolved from an “honor among thieves” understanding about not ratting out fellow criminals, to one that insists no one should ever talk to the police at all, about anything.

Regardless of who’s doing the snitching, group administrators say they’re not trying to encourage retaliation. Danna points to a disclaimer on his group, absolving him of any responsibility for what happens because of the public info posted on his page. Asked whether he’s heard of any violent confrontations as a result of the postings, he says, “As far as anyone getting hurt in a fight, yes, I’m not going to say that I haven’t.” But, he adds, retaliation “is going to happen in some way anyway if you tell on people.”

The impact of online anti-snitching groups is difficult to quantify. Despite the obvious risk of harm to outed informants—or those wrongly accused of being CIs—the pages appear largely unknown to law enforcement. It also appears that no major retaliatory violence has been linked to anti-snitching Facebook pages, and as long as members don’t make specific threats, their posts are likely protected speech. “If you reveal truthfully that someone is a confidential informant, and that is all you do, and you have acquired the information lawfully, the First Amendment would protect you,” says Jonathan Peters, J.D., Ph.D., an assistant journalism professor and faculty affiliate at the Surveillance Studies Research Center at the University of Kansas. Direct threats and incitement, on the other hand, would not be protected, Peters says.

These groups reflect growing public awareness and outrage regarding police misuse of confidential informants, which has prompted new legislation and many to consider a crucial question: Does the use of CIs make our communities any safer?  

The gamble

It appears that confidential informants are at less risk when exposed on the Internet than they are in the hands of police, considering the several well-publicized deaths in recent years of college students whose murders have been linked to their work as confidential informants after arrests for petty drug crimes. As public outrage over the deaths some of these students, including Rachel Hoffman, Jeremy McClean, and Andrew Sadek, grows, the Internet is serving as a means for educating people about their rights and the realities of how police use confidential informants—and not just for those interested in shielding criminal activity but for grieving parents as well.

“The availability of information on social media has been an enormous source of reform in and of itself, because it’s permitting families whose children might have been harmed by becoming a confidential informant or are feeling pressured to become a confidential informant to learn they’re not alone and that this is not an isolated incident; it’s not something that just one department does,” says Alexandra Natapoff, a Loyola Law School professor in Los Angeles and the author of Snitching: Criminal Informants and The Erosion of American Justice. “It’s in effect a national policy that has been going on for decades, and about which the public knew very little. So perhaps the most powerful influence of the Internet and social media is to teach the public that this is an enormous aspect of our criminal system generally. It’s creating public awareness that has never really existed in this area before.”

Tammy Sadek, Andrew’s mother, said via email that she has found the “Justice for Andrew Sadek” page she runs helpful for raising awareness about her son, who at 20 years old was found dead in a river with a gunshot wound to the head after working as an informant for police in North Dakota. Andrew, who’d been picked up holding less than $100 worth of marijuana, did what police instructed and didn’t tell his parents that he was a CI, nor did he consult a lawyer.

“The conversation with him and the cops, in which they said, ‘we’ll help you out’ is not on tape, not anywhere.”

“The implication is, ‘A lawyer can’t help you,’” says Lance Block, an attorney for the Sadeks. “In his interview with police, they told him he was looking at a possible 40 years, but the reality is they’re really just going to go to drug court. Sadek never would’ve been incarcerated.”

Block helped draft new legislation in Florida that’s often referred to as “Rachel’s Lawafter Rachel Hoffman, a young student fatally shot after police sent her into a drug-and-gun buy in a park wearing a wire and lost her. The law restricts common police tactics regarding informants, such as making off-the-record promises of immunity, and requires police to properly train and consider the age and experience level of potential informants.

The law is better than nothing, Block says, especially considering that in most states, police use CIs almost completely free of public scrutiny. Rachel’s Law, for example, doesn’t address that currently, police aren’t required to read potential drug informants Miranda warnings informing them of their rights, and conversations between police and people they’re trying to recruit are often not recorded, sources say.

A San Francisco public defender who asked not to be identified says she has a client who was set up by his best friend, who asked him to hide a gun for him. Several days later, cops tailed him and pulled him over. Searching his car, they skipped over obvious spots such as the glove box and went right for the place the informant said the gun would be.

“The conversation with him and the cops, in which they said, ‘we’ll help you out’ is not on tape, not anywhere,” the public defender says.

Despite his arguable railroading, the informant was such a close friend, she says, that her client is refusing to expose him in court as a snitch, saying he’ll just ride the beef (slang for “do the time”).

“People get scared because the police have enormous power, and police know that,” she continues. “And they use their power. Virtually everybody who is arrested—every small-time 1/10 of a gram coke seller—every one of them is asked to do controlled buys, and these statements are never on tape.”

It’s a common practice that despite its ubiquity, almost never nabs big-time dealers either, she says.

But whether the use of CIs in lower-level drug cases has increased depends on who you ask. Many experts agree, however, that a combination of the war on drugs that began in the Nixon area and a new emphasis on “quality of life” crime policing has led to rampant CI abuses.

“Police priorities have shifted in the last 25 to 30 years,” says James Nolan, Ph.D., former Wilmington, Delaware, vice cop, FBI researcher and currently a professor of sociology at West Virginia University. “The system used CIs for drug cases, but drug cases weren’t a huge focus for police until in the ’80s and ’90s with the ‘broken windows’ philosophy. The game of policing has shifted from clearing cases and solving crimes to just making lockups—getting warm bodies into jail.”

At the end of the day, he says, if you get three lockups but don’t clear the case or get a conviction, it doesn’t matter: “What happens is the police go to the street corners where things are happening out in the open and just jump out and chase people. It has broken trust and relationships.”

“People get scared because the police have enormous power, and police know that. And they use their power.”

If we ended the war on drugs, Natapoff says, our reliance on criminal informants would plummet: “In effect, we incentivize police to cut informant deals so police can show success with numbers rather than show the more important questions: Did we make communities safer? Did we protect children from drugs and from violence?”

Lower-income communities of color are particularly affected, and many say that there’s a fundamental disconnect between the police and these communities especially. Nolan notes that police in one district have told him that they don’t hear about a shooting until it’s on the news, because residents in that area won’t call police. And police often express frustration in the media that no one will talk to them even about tragic crimes, such as when a child is murdered by stray bullets while walking to school.

“Cops say ‘if you ‘see something, say something,’ but people are thinking about the costs,” says Rachael A. Woldoff, Ph.D., an associate professor of anthropology and sociology at West Virginia University and author of Priced Out: Stuyvesant Town and the Loss of Middle-Class Neighborhoods. “If your son is dead, your son’s dead. So why would you put your other kids who are still alive in danger [of retaliation] by talking to the police?”

People more street-savvy in dealing with the cops will have a better understanding about the police department’s inability to protect them if they become CIs, but when threatened with decades of prison time, many feel that they have no choice but to comply and are easy prey for police. And they’re faced with a rude awakening even if they felt like they were taking the easy way out by turning informant.

“After officers are done with them, they still get charged with the same crime,” Danna says. “The only difference is that police say in court that you cooperated and helped them out. But nine times out of 10, you’re still going to serve the same amount of time—but the people you told on are in lockup with you, so your time is twice as worse than it would’ve been. It’s kind of like being a child molester or rapist in jail. You get no respect and you’re treated like garbage.”

The bottom line is that many naïve and desperate people become pawns in a fruitless cycle of pressure, lies, and lockups, all for the sake of dollars to fund a drug war unlikely to make communities any safer.

“It’s funding that’s driving the bus here,” Block says. “The real reason we’re using citizens to do undercover work is because of the drug war, and drug war arrests mean more funding. This is at the federal, state and local levels. There are several hundreds different drug enforcement grants, and the number of arrests demonstrates a need for funding.

“It doesn’t matter whether they’re using 20-year-old Andrew Sadek or Pablo Escobar, one arrest is one arrest.”

Although she’s an outspoken advocate for reform, Natapoff doesn’t suggest banning the use of informants altogether.

“They are a symptom, a particularly risky symptom of a larger fact about the American criminal justice system, which is that it is in fact a marketplace,” she says. “Ninety-five percent of all criminal convictions in this country are the result of a plea, of a negotiation, not a trial. So in effect, we have empowered police and prosecutors to negotiate guilt, not to adjudicate guilt.”

The government should require a greater degree of transparency regarding the use of informants, she continues.

“Cops say ‘if you ‘see something, say something,’ but people are thinking about the costs.”

“We should run the use of informants the way we run any other government agency, and that’s with regulation, transparency and accountability, none of which we have currently,” she says. “The argument isn’t that police shouldn’t be allowed to cut deals, but they should be accountable for the decisions they make, they should be required to keep data about the deals that they cut, the benefits of those deals: How many cases did they really solve from criminal snitches? How much drugs did they get off the street? How many murders did they solve?”

Typically, the government is required to justify policies that affect millions of lives and cost millions of dollars and to tell us what went well and what went badly, she says, “but we don’t require that of police and prosecutors. We permit them to operate in the shadows, and that needs to stop.” 

What might be more effective than imposing more rules regarding police use of informants, some experts say, is changing the concept of policing altogether.

“If you want clearance and you want people to not only give you information but to testify, you have to have a relationship that doesn’t currently exist,” Woldoff says.

Going to one person’s house in the neighborhood to ask what they saw when investigating a shooting won’t work, Nolan says, but police routinely and cluelessly go that route anyway, only appearing in a neighborhood after a crime has been committed. If police visit all the houses on a street, however—and often, preferably—they’re more likely to hear something useful to their investigation because the resident might not be too terrified to speak up. Good policing wasn’t originally interchangeable with “law enforcement,” he says. Our criminal justice system has just evolved that way.

“The reduction of crime is very much tied to how much people are willing to intervene,” Nolan says.

Building deep, substantial community relations are easier said than done. But as more cases of CI mishandling come to light, and the more obvious it becomes to the public that reliance on informants has a negative on communities, police departments might be more willing to give it a try.

In addition to the scandal in the OC, in Fresno, California, a longtime CI has taken to Facebook to complain that police in Kerman ignored her repeated warnings that a couple in their 60s who reportedly grew marijuana in their home, Gary and Sandy DeBartolo, would soon be robbed by people who had also expressed an interest in killing them.

Although a police memo ordered stepped-up surveillance of the couple’s home, Kern County law enforcement didn’t warn the couple they were in danger. Surveillance vehicles sat outside while burglars broke in and slit the couple’s throats. The murder trial of the three people thought to be responsible is scheduled to begin in May.

In case documents pertaining to the case, this informant said, “Somebody should have … knock[ed] on the fucking door [to] tell these people, ‘uh, we have information that you possibly are going to get robbed. Your life may be in danger. Did anybody do that? No. Instead they sat outside…to watch the criminal go in and kill this couple. Why did they do that? Because nobody believed me.”

Illustration via J. Longo