When a witness to a crime is accused of being a snitch, police and prosecutors sometimes watch an accused offender walk away because of gang threats of retribution to the witness.
Why that happens and what to do about it were the focus of a presentation today, “Snitch Mentality and Other Contemporary Issues in Gang Investigation,” given at the 27th annual conference of the National Black Prosecutors Association, held at the Mark Hopkins Hotel this week.
In gang culture, snitching is offensive, and gangs typically have two ways of dealing with snitches, said Sgt. Toney Chaplin, one of the presenters.
“Snitches get stitches or snitches wind up in ditches,” he said.
“They don’t get hugs and kisses.”
A show of hands among the roughly 100 prosecuting attorneys who attended the presentation showed that about one-third to half of them had lost a case because a witness refused to testify.
The number of people who refuse to come forward to cooperate with police at all in investigations, typically out of fear, is even higher, said Chaplin and his co-presenter, Officer Damon Jackson of the San Francisco Police Department’s gang task force.
The fear is pervasive among communities plagued by gang activity.
People learn of the hazards of cooperating with police or testifying in court, and parents teach their children to avoid police because associating with law enforcement angers local gang members, the officers said.
Gangs retaliate with threats to property or belongings, or with violent acts such as beatings, stabbings, or shootings.
To illustrate their point, the police showed a video of three gang members beating and robbing a man they had just yanked from his bicycle.
Several witnesses in the background refused to step in to stop the crime, even when one woman appeared to try to get the others together to help the victim.
“In this case they did the right thing,” Chaplin said. “It’s a robbery; why make it a homicide?”
Often in gang-related crimes, the same person might be the witness, victim and offender, Chaplin said. A gang member might have watched his property being stolen by another gang, and then later tried to get revenge by committing his own felony.
Chaplin and Jackson addressed ways district attorney’s offices can alleviate the problem of low community and witness participation.
They stressed staying in touch with witnesses by making an occasional phone call to let the individuals know they are not alone.
They also said increasing funding for witness relocation programs and–because police and prosecutions are viewed as ineffective–changing the public’s perception of police intervention and district attorneys would be helpful, too.
About 200 attendees from across the country are attending the association’s 2010 conference, “Beyond Tough on Crime: Bold Innovations for Safe Communities,” said Erica Derryck, spokeswoman for the San Francisco District Attorney’s Office.
This year’s turnout boasts the largest attendance yet from chief prosecutors, she said.
The National Black Prosecutors Association, founded in 1983, has more than 800 members, including black prosecutors, law students, former prosecutors and law enforcement.