Dr. Rick Frei, a professor at the Community College of Philadelphia, recently conducted a study ("The Snitching Study") of over 1,500 community college students to determine whether there was widespread agreement among the students as to the definition of "snitching," and what factors would increase or decrease the likelihood that a student would "snitch" on someone they knew to have committed a crime. Professor Frei also testified before the United States Senate’s Subcommittee on Crime and Drugs as to the result of his survey.
The study confirmed that most students (82.6%) regarded "ratting on someone else to get out of a crime" as snitching; whereas less than a third (28.6%) regarded "picking a suspect out of a police lineup" as snitching. While that last figure still seems higher than optimal, it is perhaps explained by another of the survey’s findings, that "half the sample said they did not trust the police," even though 60% of respondents claimed to know a police officer personally.
Two factors in particular stood out for me. First was that "[t]he more the situation required the person to take the initiative … the more likely it was to be viewed as snitching." (Dr. Frei’s Testimony before the Subcommittee). Least likely to be viewed as snitching (16%) was '[a]nswering questions from the police if you are at the scene of the crime." Here, the student’s definition of snitching seemed to track the ACLU's distinction between acting as an informant and acting as a witness. That may have important ramifications for the manner in which the police engage in gathering evidence from people with knowledge of criminal activity.
The second striking factor from the study was that "[n]early half of all students said that they would be more likely to cooperate if there was someone besides the police to which they could report crimes." This factor appears to bolster the idea that the students surveyed tend to distrust the police, or perhaps what the police would do with the information — many students were less likely to snitch if the crime was non-violent. One obvious response would be to set up tipster hotlines that are not directly identified with the police, and which individuals reporting crimes could use to report incidents. Another way to approach the same problem may be to make such tipster hotlines anonymous. Anonymity impacts the most important factor inhibiting the students from acting as informants: almost thirty percent of students said they would be less likely to snitch if it would affect their reputation in the community. There are some worrying practical and legal problems with hotlines, however, and in particular anonymous tips, that I shall consider in a later post.