“Snitch” used to mean someone who gave the police information about a crime in exchange for a lesser charge for their own illegal activity.

This is not the case anymore. Now, in some communities, a snitch is anyone who talks to the police at all, about anything. This means if witnesses report a crime, they’re deemed a snitch in the eyes of their community.

Rachael Woldoff, a sociology professor at West Virginia University, said the change in the “snitch” label began to spread in 2004.

She has been working to understand how people have broadened their notion of the “snitch” to include all people who witness crime and cooperate with police. As part of this effort, she and co-author Karen Weiss wrote the article, “Stop Snitchin’: Exploring Definitions of The Snitch and Implications for Urban Black Communities” that appeared in the Journal of Criminal Justice and Popular Culture.

The article discusses hip-hop culture and the popularity of “Snitches Get Stitches” t-shirts, as well as rap and hip-hop artists’ musical message that communication with the police is wrong, no matter what the circumstance.

The article examines the snitching phenomena around the nation, especially in African-American communities.

Woldoff also said the snitching ideology ties into other cultures, such as fraternities, the military and even police forces. She said there is a high need for loyalty and trust in these institutions, and snitching is taken very seriously.

Polls consistently show that African Americans report more distrust of police than whites. One reason may be that they are critical of police performance and the criminal justice system in general, which is perceived to be unfair and unethical.

“Many African Americans don’t talk to the police because they don’t trust that they’ll be protected,” Woldoff said. “They are especially sensitized to issues like excessive force, corruption, racial profiling, and illegal detainment.”

She cites several high-profile instances leading to increased distrust including the Rodney King beating, Los Angeles riots, and stories about police confrontations with African Americans that result in injury, death, and harassment.

According to the Bureau of Justice Statistics, in 2009, black, non-Hispanic males were incarcerated at a rate more than six times higher than white, non- Hispanic males and 2.6 times higher than Hispanic males.

“This is another reason that African-American communities have developed the broader definition of the snitch,” she said. “Retaliation for snitching in prison can be brutal: perpetrators are often murdered.”

Woldoff hopes that her work can help change this trend. She pointed to two grassroots campaigns designed to address the problem: “Snitch, You Bet I Told,” and “Keep Talking.” Both information campaigns are aimed at building better relationships between communities and the police.

This article underscores the importance of support for communication campaigns to curb negative messages about police cooperation.

“There are good reasons for African Americans feelings of distrust toward the police, but when people fail to report crimes they see, police cannot make arrests and crime flourishes in their neighborhoods,” said Woldoff.

In addition to this article, Woldoff also has a book coming out in 2011 with Cornell University Press. It will examine the factors that trigger white flight and black flight in modern urban neighborhoods and explore the potential for cross-racial neighbor relationships between elderly whites and younger black families who reside in the same community.


jh 12/2/10

CONTACT: Rebecca Herod, Marketing and Communications Coordinator
304-293-7405, ext. 5251, Rebecca.Herod@mail.wvu.edu

Follow @WVUToday on Twitter.