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COVER STORY: See No Evil

Inner-city’s ‘Stop Snitching’ campaign makes crime reporting more difficult—and more dangerous 5/25/2008 06:01:00 PM Eastern

With 15 years in investigative reporting, from the bloody crack battles of Buffalo to a particularly murderous stretch in Minneapolis, KCTV Kansas City anchor/reporter Craig Nigrelli has developed a fair amount of street savvy when it comes to ferreting out a violent-crime story. But nothing in his bag of tricks could elicit eyewitness information following a deadly melee outside a Knights of Columbus hall in July 2006.

Two college students were killed and 10 more wounded as some 60 shots were fired in a brawl outside the hall. A few hundred people were at the event, yet when police and reporters began canvassing for information, no one seemed to have seen a thing.

Stop SnitchingNigrelli says the code of silence surrounding violent crime, the product of a grass-roots campaign called “Stop Snitching,” has a chokehold on Kansas City. At various times while he’s been interviewing witnesses, someone will walk by, repeatedly muttering “click-clock, click-clock”—simulating the sound of a gun cocking and firing. As one might expect, the witnesses promptly clam up.

So goes investigative reporting in Kansas City and several other markets in America, as the Stop Snitching movement gains momentum and leaves residents scared to death of anyone with a badge—or a microphone or notepad. “To this day, the question remains: How could two people get gunned down in front of so many people, and two years later, no one’s been charged?” Nigrelli wonders. “The answer is, no one will talk. ‘No Snitch’ is loud and powerful here.”

Investigative reporters in all corners of the country are increasingly encountering the Stop Snitching campaign—spread through word of mouth, DVDs and T-shirts—that makes their jobs that much more difficult. And as digital media means that testimony on the evening news can exist on the Web forever—and be distributed virally to an array of devices—many believe it won’t be getting easier to produce eyewitnesses.

WCAU Philadelphia investigative reporter Harry Hairston knows about such hostility firsthand. While reporting a story a few years ago about a white man who’d moved to a mostly black neighborhood in Chester, Pa., and was being harassed by neighbors who did not want him there, Hairston returned to the station van after doing his reporting to the jarring sight of a cinderblock that had been thrown through his windshield. “Their message was, leave us alone,” he says. “They did not want the media reporting on what was going on.”

Whether it’s called Stop Snitching, Don’t Snitch or Snitches Get Ditches, the code of silence centering on criminal activity goes back several decades, its roots in the old Mafia code of Omertà. When the organized crime families refused to take part in the narcotics trade, the street gangs stepped in, and used similar tactics of intimidating witnesses and making examples of so-called “rats.”

“The best way to protect their turf and assets was through fear,” says attorney Kieran Holohan, who spent a decade prosecuting violent crime in the Brooklyn, N.Y., district attorney’s office. “Beatings and killings in the street made for complete intimidation in some of these neighborhoods.”

In areas where the code has taken hold, prosecutors have become familiar with ever-more brutal examples, anything from firebombings to shootings. Two weeks ago, a 10-year-old girl named Qua-Daishia Hopkins became the apparently intended victim of such tactics: She was killed when her house in Trenton, N.J., was set on fire. Hopkins’ parents had been cooperating with a federal investigation of a local drug dealer, Trenton police say, who once lived next door.

“Don’t Snitch” gained substantial momentum with the release of the Stop Snitching DVD late in 2004. (A follow-up, Stop Snitching 2, was released earlier this year. Clips from both are available on YouTube.) The two-hour video, a crude documentary about life in the West Baltimore slums, was made by area barber/entrepreneur Rodney Bethea. It featured local residents shooting off firearms, showcasing their hip-hop skills and, most pointedly, ranting about what should be done with a Baltimore drug kingpin turned informant.

But the DVD likely never would’ve reached the mainstream if it did not include an appearance by young NBA superstar—and Baltimore native—Carmelo Anthony. (Anthony, who jokes about putting a bounty on a local rapper in the video, later told the Baltimore Sun he thought the video would stay among friends.)

What has long represented a substantial hurdle for law enforcement is now increasingly hindering news-media efforts as well. After reporting on the release of the Stop Snitching DVD, one anchor who did not want to be identified received a personalized note hand-delivered to the station suggesting that reporting on the film was akin to snitching. The police were notified, and both the anchor and the station were put under police protection. The anchor’s colleagues say the letter was written in street slang, contained very threatening language and clearly was intended to dissuade the anchor from further reporting on the Stop Snitching movement.   

Maryland Congressman Elijah Cummings has made dealing with this campaign the primary focus of his tenure. “It’s seen as a jail prevention program—you make sure you threaten or harm or kill witnesses, and let the word get out,” Cummings says. “A substantial percentage of felony offenses do not go to trial because of witness intimidation.”

Stop Snitching is so prevalent in Baltimore that WBAL News Director Michelle Butt says it’s not only an issue for reporters, but it’s its own news story—from Rep. Cummings’ legislative maneuvers, to which performers in the DVDs have been arrested. “It’s a constant part of our job here,” she says. “It’s so pervasive in some of our communities.”

But the anecdotes are hardly limited to one or two cities. In Detroit, WJBK’s veteran investigative reporter Scott Lewis speaks of a city “paralyzed by fear” when it comes to speaking with police or media. In West Palm Beach, Fla., WPEC Executive VP/General Manager Brien Kennedy speaks of gang members lurking menacingly across the street from a reporter interviewing witnesses at violent crime scenes. WTVJ Miami VP/News Director Yvette Miley tells of a surveillance tape which proved that several witnesses saw a shooting in Fort Lauderdale, despite their claims to have missed the incident entirely. “We’ve often run into people who ‘don’t see anything,’ despite having clearly seen things,” she says.

News veterans in several markets speak of children as young as 8 wearing Stop Snitching T-shirts and chanting the mantra to officers and reporters alike. CDs, jewelry, books and clothing touting anti-snitch messages—easily obtained on eBay and Amazon.com—have become so popular that government officials in Boston, Washington and Philadelphia moved to have the shirts confiscated from shops.

“People don’t draw the distinction between the police and the media,” Lewis says. “It’s a huge problem for law enforcement in Detroit, and it’s absolutely a problem for us, too.”

STORIES REMAIN UNTOLD

In the face of such hostility, it’s not hard to believe that many inner-city stories end up unreported. Station management must now think long and hard before sending reporters into such hot spots. “There’s now a reluctance to put people in harm’s way,” said one general manager in a top 10 market.

And as the typical station is getting by with smaller budgets and fewer staffers—the CBS O&Os slashed some 200 staffers in late March, Barrington Broadcasting plans to eliminate 8% of its workforce this quarter, and Media General made substantial cuts last week—managers are forced to weigh the economics of crime stories. Some might question the logic of sending a reporter to spend hours on a story where no one will be willing to grant an interview—while across town, everyone’s offering sound bites at the mall’s puppy adoption center. “You might get a neighbor saying what a nice person someone is, but getting anything substantial? It’s harder than ever,” Lewis says.

PROTECTING JOURNALISTS

Many investigative reporters, typically loath to admit more than a passing concern for their well-being, believe experience and street smarts will prevail in hostile situations. “Reporters die in Iraq, not here,” Lewis says.

The Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ)—a non-profit organization that is “dedicated to defending press freedom worldwide,” according to CPJ.org—mainly trains its focus on war reporters deployed overseas. Regarding those who ply their trade in urban hotspots across the U.S., CPJ Journalists’ Security Coordinator Frank Smyth, a veteran war reporter, mentions the organization’s push for a thorough investigation of the 2007 murder of Oakland Post (Calif.) newspaper editor Chauncey Bailey. But he says the menace of Stop Snitching as it pertains to television reporters is “way beyond the purview of CPJ.”

WORKING AROUND ‘STOP SNITCHING’

As the challenges mount, veteran newsgatherers say they’ve got to sharpen their game in order to build trust and get people to open up. Some speak of using unmarked station vehicles to better blend in while doing their legwork, of increasingly hiding their identity with caps and sunglasses to initially avoid recognition, and carefully mimicking the local slang and speech patterns. For WCAU’s Hairston, the task starts as soon as he lands in a new market. “It’s off with the suit and tie, on with the jeans and into the neighborhood,” he says. “You can show them in a few words that you can communicate on their level.”

It’s also a matter of expending more energy on anxious sources to earn their trust. “You have to cultivate and work and be persistent,” Miley says, “and you might turn a no into a yes.”

To be sure, some reporters dismiss Stop Snitching’s influence. They insist that it’s had minimal effect on the willingness of witnesses to come forward, adding they’ve never been welcome in the high-crime neighborhoods. “The people who subscribe to Stop Snitching now weren’t going to talk to me anyway,” says WTKR Norfolk, Va., investigative reporter Mike Mather. “People resent my presence in their neighborhood, but I saw that 20 years ago, too.”

Others say that the effectiveness of the campaign against speaking to law enforcement has actually been a boon for local news. Even as mistrust of the media runs high in many parts of the country, several news staffers say it’s nowhere near that of law enforcement. As such, informants feel their anonymity is better protected by the media, and are more likely to tap news outfits to bring justice to an offender (or, for that matter, to exact revenge on one) than to speak with police. “With the police, they may have to be a witness,” Hairston says. “They know I can’t arrest them.”

NO ‘SHIELD’ FOR REPORTERS

Time will tell if Stop Snitching is a way of life or merely a marketing campaign for T-shirts and videos. But many reporters aren’t optimistic things will get better, citing recent high-profile cases where journalists were compelled to give up anonymous sources under threat of jail, and lamenting the lack of a federal shield law to protect reporters—and sources. “Reporters aren’t getting the kind of protection in court that they used to,” says WTAE Pittsburgh reporter Jim Parsons. “I think it filters down to people seeing reporters give up their sources, because they’re much more reluctant to talk.”

As a result, news professionals say crafting enterprising investigative stories in the inner city will take more digging and cajoling—and watching one’s back. In Kansas City, a counter-movement to Stop Snitching called Start Talking urges witnesses to come forward for the good of the community. Such a campaign exists in other markets as well. But it may be some time before Nigrelli can interview a source without hearing simulated gun noises from shadowy passersby.

“Once the cameras are gone and the police tape comes down, people are petrified for their safety and their lives,” he says. “They tell me, hey, I gotta live in this neighborhood.”

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