Erie County law enforcement officials are exasperated that witnesses to crimes refuse to divulge what they see, and criminals won’t lead police to the masterminds behind their actions.
Now we have insights into one powerful force that’s scaring witnesses and intimidating our youth: Facebook posts that identify and castigate “snitches.”
As Lisa Thomspon and Kevin Flowers reported on Sept. 15, at least three Facebook pages have been created with posts about the names and photos of Erie people believed to be cooperating with police. The pages used the name “Jay Reed” or some variation but disappeared after reporters tried to contact the creators.
People criticized as “snitches” and family members were afraid to speak to reporters. The news story also followed the case of a 15-year-old robbery suspect who refused to tell Judge John Trucilla the name of the person who supplied him with marijuana.
“Jay Reed” had frightened the teen enough that he would not speak up in court, even though his cooperation could have led to a lighter punishment. Assistant Public Defender Emily Stutz said her young clients are “legitimately terrified” about the consequences if they cooperate with law enforcement.
We understand why police, judges and Erie County District Attorney Jack Daneri are disgusted by witnesses who refuse to talk and fed up with criminals who clam up or change testimony at hearings and trials.
There are no easy solutions to change the anti-snitch culture, which isn’t unique to Erie. Facebook pages targeting snitches also popped up in Tacoma, Wash., and Jacksonville, N.C., in recent months. The Jacksonville page was quickly shut down after it was publicized. Curtis Speller, a gang and behavior specialist, told WCTI-TV that those behind the Facebook page were “promoting crime, promoting punishment and taking the law into their hands.”
Law enforcement officials in Erie need to do more than wring their hands about the use of social media to frighten Erie residents. First, they must realize that the fear of retaliation against victims and cooperating criminals is real. What type of assurance can police provide to make sure that those who cooperate — and their families — stay safe?
Police also need to understand the power of social media and, especially, the dangers of online bullying. .
Law enforcement officials should also consider convening a diverse group of college students, especially those majoring in criminal justice, to talk about why the anti-snitching culture developed. Young people know risks and benefits of Facebook and other social networking sites. Their expertise could help local officials find ways to build trust in communities where not snitching is regarded as the golden rule.