'Code of Silence' is growing problem

Some departments struggle to find informants

Deseret Morning News

SALT LAKE CITY, Utah — If most people see a crime happen, they're going to report it to police.

But in some circles, giving information to police is considered to be worse than the actual crime itself  — even if the crime is murder or rape. Some police departments in the United States are facing an increased problem in trying to solve crimes because officers can't find witnesses or informants willing to talk to them.

Although police say the attitude of not talking to the cops -- a "code of silence" -- has been around since the days of Al Capone, a recent report on "60 Minutes" by CNN's Anderson Cooper noted the problem had become worse in recent years thanks to a concerted "Stop Snitchin"' campaign.

Utah law enforcement officers haven't yet seen a significant rise in lack of cooperation from crime victims and witnesses, but some have seen some evidence of the campaign.

Salt Lake City police detective Jeff Bedard said he has seen "Stop Snitchin"' shirts in the Pioneer Park area.

"Suspected drug dealers have been seen wearing those shirts," he said.

The anti-snitching wave is believed to have started as early in 1999 but gained national attention in 2004 thanks to a DVD made in Baltimore titled, "Stop Snitching."

The idea of not talking to police is now being marketed like never before. One Web site sells T-shirts and CDs with the "Stop snitchin"' slogan. The "Stop Snitching" myspace.com page says it has been shut down twice but was up and running again.

The slogan and the "Stop Snitchin"' campaign have been embraced primarily by the hip-hop and rap music community, and slogans frequently appear in music videos and on albums.

Supporters of the movement have posted messages on the campaign's myspace.com page such as, "If you snitch you deserve a closed casket." Another says, "All snitches must die."

Baltimore police have tried to combat the campaign in past years by offering their own T-shirts with another slogan: "Keep Talkin'."

Still, most Utah officers say the campaign either hasn't reached the state yet or they're just not seeing any code of silence above what they would normally encounter.

Salt Lake County Sheriff's Sgt. Bill Robertson, who is with the Metro Gang Unit, said there has always been an unofficial rule among local gangs not to talk to police.

"We haven't seen the level other agencies have seen," he said. "It's always spoken about at the jail. People will say they have a snitch list."

Robertson said there's always going to be a push by certain groups to encourage people not to talk to police. But he believes movements like "Stop Snitchin"' are more interested in making money by selling their T-shirts.

Still, police say there are some segments in society, even in Utah, that believe talking to police under any circumstance is bad.

"The worst thing in that society is to be a rat or snitch," Bedard said. "It's almost a death wish in some cases if that message gets out (that you're a snitch). One problem no one wants to take upon themselves is being labeled a snitch."

Several police departments, such as Salt Lake City's, have tried to combat the problem by setting up a tips-for-cash hotline. People who leave tips can do so anonymously, and some can even be eligible for a cash reward.

Taylorsville Police Sgt. Rosie Rivera said if a person doesn't want to talk to an officer, sometimes it's because of their appearance. Sometimes all it takes is an officer in street clothes to talk to a witness rather than a uniformed officer, or vice versa, she said.

"Appearance means a huge thing," she said.

In some cases, witnesses are afraid to step forward not out of fear of retaliation from gang members or other bad guys but because they are illegal immigrants afraid of being arrested and deported.

In one Taylorsville case, Sonja Mejia, 29, who was six months pregnant, was strangled to death on Feb. 9, 2006, in a unit at the Fairway Apartments, 1167 W. Clubhouse Drive. That case remains unsolved mainly because of a lack of witnesses, even though the murder happened in the middle of the day.

Police say those who might know something about the homicide may be afraid to step forward because they are undocumented immigrants.

Copyright 2007 Deseret Morning News

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