Interviews April 2007

Viewers to a Kill

Jeremy Kahn, author of "The Story of a Snitch," talks about the growing problem of witness intimidation and the challenges of reporting a story about it.
Also see:

"On Baltimore's Mean Streets"
Jeremy Kahn rides along with Baltimore's Homicide Operations Squad in search of murder witnesses.

In October 2004, John Dowery Jr. was given a break. After spending 11 months confined to his house for possession of a loaded handgun, the 36-year-old cut a deal with the cops. A heroin addict with a prior drug conviction, Dowery had faced a federal trial and up to eight years in prison. But in exchange for his testimony in an upcoming murder case, he was offered a chance to get his life back in order. His promise to the prosecution earned him a lighter pretrial detention: he lost the transmitter that had been locked around his ankle, started working a nightshift job, and entered into a drug rehab program. For the first time in years, his future seemed bright.

A year later, Dowery was shot six times—in the back, arms, and legs—on his way home from work. The two attackers believed they had killed him and left him to die. Surgeons at Johns Hopkins hospital in Baltimore saved his life, but many of Dowery’s neighbors didn’t think he deserved to live. His crime? Talking to the cops.

Getting civilians to talk or testify has always been a challenge, police and prosecutors say. And falling arrest and conviction rates for violent crimes is one indication that the problem is not going away. Authorities have identified a rising force at work: witness intimidation. Threats leveled at potential witnesses—many of which, like Dowery’s, are stunningly violent—greatly hamper law enforcement’s ability to try cases in court. And while examples of witness intimidation appear throughout history, writes Jeremy Kahn in the April issue of The Atlantic, “the roots of the phenomenon appear to be changing.” This evolution, he argues, is reflected in the spread of omerta (the gangland code of silence) from organized crime to the population at large.

Those who cooperate with the police are labeled “snitches” or “rats”—terms once applied only to jailhouse informants or criminals who turned state’s evidence, but now used for “civilian” witnesses as well. This is particularly true in the inner cities, where gangsta culture has been romanticized through rap music and other forms of entertainment, and where the motto “Stop Snitching,” expounded in hip-hop lyrics and emblazoned on caps and T-shirts, has become a creed.

Kahn suggests that the “Stop Snitching” phenomenon can be traced back to the civil rights era, when relations between minority communities and law enforcement began to seriously erode. After the war on drugs widened the rift, a culture of silence ensued. In today’s inner-cities, talking to the law represents a betrayal of the community’s most important creed. Those who choose to seek protection from or provide assistance to law enforcement officials face social ostracism at best.

At worst, they become the victims of criminals intent on enforcing the code at whatever cost. Such incidents abound. House fires. Sexual assaults. Threatening notes tacked to doors. A man gunned down in the light of day. In one particularly gruesome case, all seven members of an East Baltimore family were killed in a firebombing after the parents complained to the police about drug dealers on their sidewalk. Some perpetrators of these crimes against witnesses are caught and sentenced, but more are not. Police find themselves in a daily fight against the fear, anger, or indifference that motivates the communities’ commitment to omerta.  And as Kahn observes, “[E]very incident in which a witness is assaulted or murdered heightens the climate of fear and mistrust—the sense that the law either can’t or won’t protect ordinary people.”

In “The Story of a Snitch,” Kahn examines the complex roots and nature of the “stop snitching” movement and the roles of all its players—the criminals, the victims, the cops, the lawyers, the jurors, and the lawmakers. Through a hopeful and then tragic narrative of one victim’s experience, Kahn calls attention to the complexities of the problem and the ultimate obstacle to a solution:

[T]o really reduce witnesses’ reluctance to participate in the judicial process will require something beyond the abilities of cops and courts: a cultural transformation in America’s inner cities.… But what if the community is never ready? Many inner-city neighborhoods have no community. The institutions that once held them together—the churches, the associations, the businesses—are shells of what they were, if they exist at all.

Jeremy Kahn is a writer based in Washington, D.C. This is his first article for The Atlantic. We spoke by phone on February 16th.

Abigail Cutler

How did you get interested in this story? It’s something of a departure from the sorts of international issues you’ve covered in the past.

It’s true. I had never covered a big urban issue like this before. I’d come across some news clips back in February 2006 that mentioned the Stop Fucking Snitching DVD that surfaced in Baltimore in 2004. That got me interested in this whole topic of witness intimidation. A few aspects of the movement piqued my interest, particularly the role of technology.

What sort of technology? The DVD you just mentioned?

Actually, the DVD ultimately didn’t prove to be the greatest example. I found some more compelling instances of criminal organizations using technology in really sophisticated ways to intimidate people. I think people initially believed that the DVD was created as a means of propagating a message. But I found out later in my reporting that its role couldn’t actually be characterized that way.

Meaning it didn’t play as big of a role as its creators had hoped it might?

Actually, I don’t think it was really designed to promote a message necessarily. I mostly think it was a way to get people to talk about what was on their minds, to rant about snitching and its effects on the community. It definitely reflected what was going on in the culture and provided good insight into what people on the streets thought about the whole thing. But I don’t think it was designed to be a piece of pro-criminal propaganda, as initially portrayed by some prosecutors and news reports.

Anyway, I started talking to some academics about the phenomenon and gathering some string on the topic throughout the spring and summer of 2006, but I didn’t really start my reporting until the fall. As soon as I started reporting, I found that there were tons of cases of witness intimidation out there—it’s really a rampant phenomenon and exists in a lot of other cities besides Baltimore.

Why did you pick Baltimore as the focus of your narrative?

The DVD was part of it. Also, I’m based here in DC, so the proximity helped. But beyond those reasons, Baltimore also seems to have the greatest number of egregious examples. I think it does have it worse than other cities. That said, “Stop Snitching” is also a phenomenon in Philadelphia, Detroit, Chicago, and out west in Denver and L.A., which obviously already had really bad gang problems. So the problem definitely exists in a lot of other cities, but Baltimore offered a lot of prominent examples. Witness intimidation is so prevalent there; there are so many violent crimes.

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Abigail Cutler is an Atlantic Monthly staff editor.

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