Five years ago, the Department of Justice examined a frustrating and puzzling problem: Why do people, particularly those most threatened by violence, so often refuse to help police investigate crime?
“The insidious nature of the stop snitching message intimidates juveniles and young adults, erodes trust between communities and police, and threatens police agencies’ ability to solve and prevent crime,” the department found.
Kansas City is not immune. Authorities repeatedly ask for community help to solve a violent crime — the recent shooting of a 6-year old is an example — then watch, with exasperation, as passers-by clam up.
Some of this is clearly cultural. The tattle-tale remains a despised archetype, the subject of scorn from kindergarten to adulthood. Fear of criminal retaliation and retribution also plays an important role.
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But after reading dozens of witness statements from the shooting in Ferguson, Mo., another explanation for public silence becomes apparent: people are scared of the police.
At least one Ferguson witness wept. Others fidgeted, worried their accounts might not match later testimony and might land them in trouble with the law. Still others worried about a relative or friend with an outstanding ticket or missed court date: would cooperation, they wondered, lead to an unrelated arrest?
Almost everyone appreciates the feeling of unease when seeing a police cruiser in the rear-view mirror. Imagine, then, how inner-city residents must worry when they’re asked to help solve a violent crime.
They’re likely to conclude it’s best to say as little as possible and walk away.
Breaking this pattern will be enormously difficult and will likely take generations. Residents will have to become convinced random shootings are a bigger threat to their well-being than talking with authorities.
But police officials have much work to do as well. They’ll have to remember they are ultimately servants of the public, not its adversaries.
“This can be difficult to achieve,” the Justice Department report conceded. “When law-abiding residents are stopped and questioned by police, they may not realize that the goal of the police action is to identify and put pressure on criminal offenders, not to harass the innocent.”
Yet low-profile harassment seems a large part of perceived experience in cities across the nation. Until police and the public believe they’re on the same side, silence will be the exception, not the rule.