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.

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"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.

How did you end up making contact with your sources? With John Dowery, for example?

Some people at the prosecutor’s office in Baltimore pointed me in his direction, as an example of a case that hadn’t yet received much attention outside of the city. When I started looking at his case, Dowery was still alive. I first tried to make contact with him through his family in East Baltimore, having found their addresses in the court records. After having one initial tentative conversation with him, I put in another request to talk to him through his family—that’s when he ended up getting killed. It was pretty dramatic. Really shocking and really tragic.

From the story, it looks like you spent a considerable amount of time talking to him—there are just so many details about his life. How did you piece them all together?

I probably spent less time talking to him than you imagine. It had taken me a long time to convince him to talk to me at all. Just tracking him and his family down was difficult—they were hard to get a hold of and very distrustful at first. I really only had one preliminary conversation with him before he was killed. And I was just appalled when it happened. As I write in the piece, it was over Thanksgiving. I was getting closer to the writing stage, but still hoped to have a more extensive talk with him that following week. Over the holiday, I got an email from a communications person at the prosecutor’s office who had come across a little blurb in the paper about the killing. She forwarded it on to me, fearing it was the same John Dowery Jr. I had been following. It became quickly clear that they were the same person.

At that point, I hadn’t planned to focus solely on his case. My plan was to tell the story in a very different manner—not through a single narrative, because I didn’t feel I had really found one with enough depth to cover all the necessary ground. At the time he and I spoke, I was simultaneously reporting on a number of cases, maybe three or four at once. And then, quite tragically, he was killed. It pains me to say it, but his death was absolutely crucial in the way the story ultimately came together. After it happened, I had several more extensive conversations with his family.

Were they more willing to talk to you afterwards?

Yes, I think they were more interested in talking to me about it after it happened. They were in shock, too, and obviously very grief-stricken, and it was hard for them to talk. But they were willing to talk, to me and to The Baltimore Sun—so at that point they came around and helped me fill in lots of the holes. I think they felt there was really something to talk about once he was killed.

How did you get everyone else to talk? I imagine many people would fear talking to anybody about the issue, much less to the press.

It wasn’t easy, let’s put it that way. I’m not sure I was as successful as I would have liked. I found it very difficult to get people to open up. They’re generally distrustful of the press and especially distrustful in those neighborhoods if you’re white. I think they feel mistreated by local media—that crime is the only topic that gets covered, if at all, in their neighborhoods. So they were very distrustful of me. Basically, I found just going there was my best bet. They gave me some credit just for going to their neighborhood and trying to talk to them.

For just showing up, as Mark Bowden might say?

Exactly. For going to where they live and tracking them down. They just seemed to be impressed by that. They were still very suspicious; I had to show them my press pass and previous clips in order to convince them I was who I said I was. I found that some people were very happy to talk about snitching; others weren’t. I also found it was sometimes easier to get them first talking about police-community relations. People seemed more willing to talk freely about that. Then I would segue into how talking to the police was regarded in the neighborhood, what happens to people who do, how acts of witness intimidation are remembered. That ended up being the most successful approach.

I would have liked to interview more people, had it been possible. I tried to get on the prison’s visitor list to talk to Tracy Love and Tamall Parker, but they didn’t seem interested in talking to me. And obviously their lawyers weren’t that keen on my talking to them either.

You note in your piece that the roots of this phenomenon are distinct from those portrayed in mafia culture—that this current iteration of intimidation isn’t just a natural outgrowth of a time-old tradition in organized crime. Can you speak more to the differences?

I think the two are very different. This intimidation has spread beyond those who are involved in criminal enterprises to the community at large, which has not only adopted this ethos but is also enforcing it. Not necessarily through violence, but at least through a social stigma, which is widely enforced by people in the neighborhood. While the violence itself does tend to come from the criminal enterprises—the drug gangs, mostly—entire neighborhoods will ostracize those who talk or snitch to the police. I definitely think it’s different than what you saw before with organized crime.

I found the argument made by David Kennedy [director of the Center for Crime Prevention and Control at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice] —that the silence of many witnesses doesn’t come from fear but from anger—especially interesting. Do you agree with this assessment? Do you think it’s possible that members of these communities are willing to let crimes go unpunished out of defiance?

I think that David Kennedy makes some good points. He argues that the distrust between black communities and the government dates back all the way to reconstruction. That’s very much his opinion. I think it’s a little extreme, but I do agree that since the civil rights era there has been a major breakdown in trust and that the war on drugs has really deepened it. There’s a feeling in these communities that as long as the police are only coming in to these neighborhoods to lock people up for drug offenses, there’s no reason that community members should work with the police. The feeling is that the police are somehow undermining the community, destroying the community. Not talking to the police has become a way of fighting back—and it’s a strategy that has been adopted by a large segment of the population, even by those not involved in criminal activity.

At the same time, I think it’s significant that the organized community that used to exist in these neighborhoods has also broken down. That certainly doesn’t help encourage people to talk to the police when there’s no structure to protect them. On top of that, there’s also a sense of indifference. I don’t think the police are totally wrong when they say, “Look, it’s not all fear and it’s not all ‘We hate the police.’ Some of it has to do with people not really caring about their civic responsibilities anymore.” I think there is some truth to that: people feel less committed to these neighborhoods—some of them are transients, they’ve moved around a lot—and less committed to sticking their neck out for their neighbors. There’s definitely an “every person for him/herself” attitude that pervades many of these areas. It’s a very complicated phenomenon with many, many layers. It’s difficult to separate out exactly what the specific drivers are.

As you point out, the “stop snitching” phenomenon has been popularized by the HBO series, The Wire. Do you have a sense of whether the show gets it right?

My mention of The Wire was meant to be a reference point for readers unfamiliar with the phenomenon. But the show is very popular, especially in Baltimore where almost everybody—certainly the police—watches it. People I talked to on the street seemed to watch it and like it. They felt like somebody was finally telling their story.

Until I started reporting and was told repeatedly that I needed to see it, I had never watched the show. The show wasn’t what brought me to the issue—but that said, now having watched it, I must say it’s incredibly well done. As far as I can tell, it’s almost completely accurate. After I started my reporting, I picked up David Simon’s book The Homicide, which deals with reluctant witnesses. He really knows Baltimore and those neighborhoods and I think The Wire captures the related issues extremely well. Maybe there are a few things in the show that are a bit more extreme than they are in real life, but for the most part they’re not. After all, a lot of the show’s plotline is based on real events.

You mentioned before that the Stop Fucking Snitching DVD wasn’t intended to be a piece of propaganda; rather, it was meant to be more of a documentary. Has the “Keep Talking” DVD had any of its intended effect?

I think it’s had very little of its intended effect, though it’s won a number of awards from various police associations. I think it’s a clever thing for law enforcement to have tried, but Stop Fucking Snitching gained momentum because it had so much street credibility. By its very nature, anything produced by the cops is not going to have very much street credibility, if any at all. It was certainly creative, but was it effective in getting people to talk to the police? Not very.

It may have been effective in other important ways—like publicizing some of the arrests that the police had made. I guess it was a way for cops to say, “Look. See those guys who appeared in Stop Fucking Snitching? We’ve taken them off the street. We’re safer as a result.” It was essentially an attempt by the police to show the drug lords that they had the upper hand, a way for them to prove that they could fight back too. So it was effective, I guess, in that sense.

You note in the piece that law enforcement increasingly cannot count on people to come forward out of a sense of civic duty, and that those who do come forward are usually motivated by other things. Both Dowery and Bassett came forward in the hopes of getting a lighter sentence on their criminal charges. I know this kind of deal making is prevalent all across the justice system, but did you encounter many people who strongly believe that this kind of rewards system is dangerous?

Yes, many defense attorneys think it’s a dangerous thing and are really opposed to it. They feel that if the prosecutors roll over too easily to make a deal, then it creates perverse incentives. And, of course, people lie to get these deals. Most defense attorneys seem to agree that this is a system that encourages people to lie. There are also some academics who feel that there’s something morally wrong to have such a system in place—that it subverts justice. But if you talk to prosecutors across the country, you’ll find that they all use this system to some extent and, as you say, it’s not limited to this area. It’s extremely prevalent across all levels and types of law enforcement and, truthfully, I don’t see how one gets around it.

I do think you have to be careful, though, and I do take the defense attorneys’ point that the practice can be abused. It’s just a hard thing to get around. Congress has tried to make things better, by instating mandatory minimums as an attempt to reduce the number of people who get reductions in their jail time for testifying. The problem is that such deal making has proven to be an effective law enforcement tactic; without it, it would be very difficult to get anybody off the streets for crimes. And it’s not the case that every single person who does cut a deal is lying.

You point out attempts that certain legislatures like Maryland are making to pass stricter witness intimidation laws. What exactly are these laws? Why are they facing so much opposition? On face value, it seems that enforcing stronger measures against witness intimidation would be pretty uncontroversial.

Actually, the Maryland effort was incredibly controversial. When it comes to protecting witnesses, I think everyone is pretty much in agreement. I don’t think anybody is against providing more money for witness assistance or more federal protection. The opposition hinges on a different issue: whether prosecutors should be allowed to introduce statements from a witness when they’re not present in court, when they’re not there to be cross-examined. That is extremely controversial.

Defense attorneys, not surprisingly, are for the most part very opposed to that measure. The compromise reached in Maryland stated that prosecutors could introduce a witness’s prior statements and evidence even if he or she doesn’t appear in court, provided that the attorney can prove to a judge, by clear and convincing evidence, that the defendant had something to do with the witness’s absence in court. Now that’s already a pretty high standard and even prosecutors complain that such a standard of evidence is too hard to prove. Still, defense attorneys were very upset about the compromise. They feel that defendants have a constitutional right to question their accusers and that it’s a violation of their rights to have any evidence introduced without the responsible witness there to vouch for it or be cross-examined on it.

There is also opposition against attempts to increase penalties for witness intimidation. Defense attorneys feel that what prosecutors sometimes call intimidation—wearing “Stop Snitching” paraphernalia or shooting hard looks at a witness—doesn’t always rise to that standard and that heavy penalties should really be reserved for explicit acts of violence.

But in federal courts, prosecutors are free to introduce statements from witnesses who aren’t present, right?

Right. In federal proceedings, under certain circumstances, it is allowed. The federal court has a much more lenient standard than many state courts for introducing that sort of evidence. Still, a lot of people disagree with the federal standard, too.

Can you elaborate at all on how certain cities are making a case for prohibiting “Stop Snitching” paraphernalia? How did Washington, D.C. manage to ban these T-shirts? Under what prosecutable category does this fall?

Frankly, I’m still not sure how D.C. managed to get away with it. In other cities where the same effort has been made, the American Civil Liberties Union has been fairly effective in shutting it down as a violation of free speech. In other cases, it’s been stopped by intimidation coming from law enforcement. Police will threaten the stores with something else in order to get them to stop selling the stuff.

That’s ironic.

Yeah. I know that police have been known to go visit some of the places that sell these urban fashions and basically say, “Hey, we think this is a bad idea. You’re encouraging a criminal element here and if you don’t want trouble on other things then why don’t you stop selling it.” I think they argue that the shirts themselves represent a form of intimidation and that storeowners could be held criminally or civilly liable for selling them.

Putting aside John Dowery’s death, which I imagine was by far the biggest surprise you encountered, what were the most surprising things you learned throughout this process?

I was really surprised by how violent some of these threats and acts were against witnesses. The phenomenon was far bigger than I expected. Some of the examples I encountered were really horrifying. Dowery’s case was really terrible and there were others, too, that I found just shocking. The level of violence that’s routine in some of these areas is truly astonishing.

I was also surprised to see how bad some of these neighborhoods really are—the conditions they’re in, it’s just appalling. Some of the housing projects I went—they were, well, not quite as bad as the developing world, but pretty close.

Did you take any specific steps to try and protect your sources? Were you at all concerned about endangering them—especially given their own fears of talking to you?

I wasn’t too worried at first, but once I felt how much resistance I was encountering, I became more aware. Sometimes, I would talk to people out on the street, but in most cases, they wanted me to come into their houses. They asked me to be very discreet about entering and leaving. It took me a while to realize that just talking to a white person was a bit scary for them. They seemed to automatically assume I was a cop or that people who saw us talking would assume I was a cop. I became a lot more conscious of making sure my sources felt safe. I’d try calling them up on the phone first before meeting them, or I’d ask them if they preferred to meet at their house or somewhere else outside of the neighborhood. Edna McAbier, a victim of witness intimidation I mention in the piece, was extremely careful about who she met and how she met with them. I was careful to respect that and accommodate her.

You mentioned just now that most people immediately assumed you were a cop because you’re white. I had imagined—maybe mistakenly—that many of the cops who work in these neighborhoods are black.

They are. Baltimore has a really integrated police department, though the homicide division, while also integrated, seems to still have more white officers than black officers. And the homicide operations squad that I accompanied—they go out specifically to look for witnesses—was all white. I found that surprising. The other ride-along I did was with a squad of guys whose job it is to look for witnesses in nonfatal shootings. Those guys were all black plainclothes officers. I found that interesting, too.

Did you notice other differences between the two squads?

I definitely noticed a difference in their approaches. Some of that is probably explained by the fact that white officers aren’t able to blend into these neighborhoods, so there’s less of a reason to try and hide the fact that they’re cops. Everyone knows they’re cops right away, even though they don’t ride around in marked cars or wear uniforms. The black officers could hang out in a place and not necessarily be identified as cops—not right away, at least. They were able to operate a bit more under the radar.

Once people realized they were cops, did you notice people responding differently even then?

No. Generally speaking, these communities don’t like cops. Period. You’ll hear people say, “It’s not a white or black thing; it’s a blue thing.” People seem to be undiscriminating when it comes to this. In one neighborhood I visited in southeast Baltimore, people were talking about police-community relations and how bad some of the cops were—and those cops were black, not white. The difference I noticed most was really in the approaches taken by the officers towards the people they were trying to arrest—usually witnesses who had failed to show up in court. I found that the black officers were just a little bit more empathetic than the white officers, who seemed to treat these witnesses as they would treat all other criminals. The black officers didn’t approach these guys as though they had committed serious crimes. They understood these guys were witnesses, that for legitimate reasons, they were afraid. They made it clear they had to come into court—it was their civic responsibility and required under law. But they were less aggressive than the white officers.

Of course, this could have more to do personality differences than with race. I only accompanied two squads and in those cases, these differences happened to break down racial lines.

What’s the outlook for the federal prosecution trial? Do you have a sense as to whether Dowery’s death will be a significant loss for the prosecution?

I don’t really know what the outlook is. I don’t know if it will happen on time—the federal prosecutors have asked for a delay in the trial; the defense has opposed that delay. As of a couple weeks ago, the judge hadn’t ruled either way.

How big of a loss was Dowery’s death to the prosecution’s case? It’s hard to say. I know the prosecution had been very interested in having him testify in the federal trial and had been providing him with federal assistance to make that happen. They’ve also been very quiet with regards to what they have on this drug conspiracy. It’s not exactly the same case as the one that was tried in state court because it’s not dealing specifically with James Wise’s murder—it’s really about heroin distribution. The first shooting of Dowery will be part of that case, and it appears that the prosecutors have built a pretty strong case against one of the shooters. Damon West, who police believe was the other man who came to Dowery’s door that October morning, recently pled guilty in state court to having been involved in shooting Dowery. He hasn’t been sentenced yet, but his plea agreement is under seal, so most people believe that he is likely to flip and testify for the prosecution in the upcoming federal trial. Depending on what he says, his testimony could be pretty strong evidence against the defense. On the other hand, he has the same credibility issues that all these guys have. It’s just hard to know.