Do "snitches get stitches" if they're random bystanders?
July 11, 2012 8:15 AM   Subscribe

I've lived in a gradually-gentrifying "high-crime" part of my city for several years. Today, after a shooting, I gave my first police statement. While waiting to do so -- out in the open, easily identifiable, with dozens of people around -- I considered that I was vulnerable to witness retaliation, if anyone wanted to. I'm not worried from today, but the officer took me indoors and out of sight before pulling out his notepad, so I'm curious. When is witness retaliation really something to worry about? Are there non-obvious ways to mitigate the risk?
posted by anonymous to Law & Government (10 answers total) 4 users marked this as a favorite
Not necessarily primarily vulnerable to witness retaliation, he also wanted you free from distractions and to prevent you from contaminating other witnesses or being contaminated by them (interrupting, etc).

I've gone through voir dire half a dozen times in the US, most recently this week, and the questions of memory, perception, witness/incident identification, and contamination was discussed pretty thoroughly in the process.

If I witness a crime or accident, I'm now in the habit of trying to make good observations about the scene and writing/recording (I have a phone with a voice recorder) my information/observation about it away from other witnesses right away (generally out of earshot) which also allows me to make a coherent and complete statement when the police do arrive. I generally give them a copy of the notes/recording as well (the police, sometimes the involved insurance agencies).
posted by tilde at 8:31 AM on July 11, 2012 [1 favorite]

In my experience, witness retaliation is largely an issue where the incident is gang-related, or where the witness being retaliated against has a pre-existing relationship with the perpetrator (e.g. domestic violence, fights within social groups, etc.). It is rarely an issue where the witness is a stranger to the defendant or the victim.

Non-obvious ways to mitigate risk include keeping close contact with the victim/witness advocate associated with the police and/or the DA's office. They have a duty to keep your personal information from the defendant, but if this is a particular worry for you, let them know and they may be able to take additional steps to keep your name and other identifying information confidential.
posted by craven_morhead at 8:59 AM on July 11, 2012 [1 favorite]

Oh, and when I say "gang-related," I mean that the witness is also a member of a gang, not just that the crime itself was gang-related.
posted by craven_morhead at 9:00 AM on July 11, 2012 [1 favorite]

Yes, "snitches get stitches" generally applies when you're a member of an in-group and snitch on someone else in the in-group, which could be family, a gang or mafia, or a clearly-identified subordinate group (prisoners snitching another prisoner to the prison guards). It's a way of maintaining control in the in-group. It's pretty rare for it to apply to someone who's "out-group" except when it's a really well-organized criminal activity and high-stakes situation (witnesses at mafia trials, for example).
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 9:16 AM on July 11, 2012

I think the critical factor has to do with whether or not the offender has an organization backing him up-- be it a gang, or a mafia-type crime. An offender is at risk from witnesses but can't afford to be spotted doing anything about them. However, if a witness threatens the organization, the organization can respond in a much broader fashion than an individual offender. Exceptions must exist, but I suspect it's quite rare.
posted by Sunburnt at 9:20 AM on July 11, 2012

Snitches get stitches also applies to gang-related crimes in low-income communities. The idea is that no one should be cooperating with the police because the police hurt everyone. Witnesses don't have to be members of gangs to have it happpen. There was one about a year ago where an elderly witness to drug crime had her whole apartment burned.
posted by corb at 9:22 AM on July 11, 2012 [1 favorite]

Better safe than sorry. Get out of town for a while. Stay with a friend or family for a month or two. Change up how you look. Come home earlier or later than people usually do. I strongly disagree that there's nothing to worry about.

I have a friend that was a witness to a shooting in his neighborhood in Baltimore, and his testifying was definitely dangerous.
posted by xammerboy at 9:29 AM on July 11, 2012 [8 favorites]

I live in a "high-crime" neighborhood with lots of gang activity. I've been here for a few months, and so far I've seen absolutely nothing interesting. (Occasionally I'll see new tags on the corner buildings on my morning walk to the train, but that's about it.)

I wouldn't hesitate even for a second to report anything I saw that was even remotely sketchy to the police, but I would do it over the phone or privately. I would privately encourage my neighbors to make statements, too. Fear of retaliation? OK, sure. But peer pressure is a real thing, even with adults. Someone who might be uncomfortable making a show of coming forward would be more willing to say something if they didn't think others would find out about it.

So. I think you're fine. And I agree with tilde that the officer pulling you aside was more about making sure that you were free from distractions/distracting others than anything else.
posted by phunniemee at 10:23 AM on July 11, 2012

I tend to generally agree there is much less risk to strangers, unless you have a very serious anti-snitch culture in this neighborhood. Baltimore is one such place where this is common. We had some of the same type of attitude growing in my Wisconsin small-city dicey neighborhood, but nothing like a regular pattern of retaliation. In over a decade of being pretty well known as the people on our block who would call 911 (mostly about petty drug activity), we only once had a real retaliation, our tires being slashed.

On the other hand there was a year we lived across from a drug house (we didn't move, the place went south) and while that went on relations with the residents grew increasingly tense. We got dead fish in our mailbox, and frozen chicken feet (!) stuffed in a tree (I guess because chickens call the cops?). And one night there was a fight out front of their place that spilled onto a neighbor's property, and the cops questioned the guy from the drug house and me (separately) across the street from one another. I had the choice of going inside, had I exercised it, but I actually wanted him to know I wasn't afraid of him and his dealer pals. Reckless, perhaps, but that fight started the chain of events that led to the landlord kicking them out and cleaning up the place. I also wouldn't have made the same choices had there been weapons involved.

So I'd strongly consider the culture in which you're living. I know what works for me, here, wouldn't necessarily work elsewhere.
posted by dhartung at 12:25 PM on July 11, 2012 [2 favorites]

Mitigate the risk by practicing some Situational Awareness. I know it sounds silly or kinda para-military but it's a life saver.

In your particular situation I wouldn't worry about this very much. You've been there for years and haven't been attacked or vandalized. That's a good sign.

Just to ease your mind a bit, typically these kinds of crimes are totally random. The perpetrator is likely either hiding out or getting loaded or both and the last thing on his or her mind is chasing down some random person who happened to talk to the police.

I think you'll be just fine, but good luck and be safe!
posted by snsranch at 5:37 PM on July 12, 2012

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