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Open Letter: You Screwed Up the "Snitch" Story, Anderson Cooper

Submitted by David Borden on (Issue #483)
Politics & Advocacy

Dear Mr. Cooper:

David Borden
As a CNN viewer who generally appreciates your work, I was stunned by how badly your report on the "Stop Snitching" movement missed the mark. It's easy to find someone willing to make an extreme statement, as hip-hop artist Cameron Giles did when he said he wouldn't report a serial murderer. But do you really think the most extreme voice on the airwaves is the one that merits such a large portion of the face time in your report?

My issue is not with the criticisms leveled at people like Giles or the Stop Snitching movement. My concern is over that which was not said. For example, the most interesting moment in the piece was David Kennedy's comment about police tactics in the war on drugs. However, you did not offer even a second sentence about that on the screen (at least in the CNN version) for Prof. Kennedy to elaborate on what those tactics might be or why they might have such an effect. Do you really consider those three seconds to constitute an adequate fulfillment of your professional responsibility to provide balanced and informative reporting?

A real examination of the "snitching" issue was provided in Ofra Bikel's 1999 documentary for Frontline, "Snitch." One of the prisoners Bikel interviewed, Clarence Aaron, received three life sentences while in college at age 23 because of a minor role in a drug transaction -- "conspiracy," as the government calls it. All the other participants got less time, even though their responsibility level in the deal had been greater. Aaron's cousin James, in fact, was sentenced to mere probation -- in exchange for testifying against Aaron -- and walked out of the courtroom a free man.

According to Aaron, his cousin told him that he "had to do what [he] had to do" and that that included lying to the jury. One of the objectives of prosecutor Deborah Griffin, apparently, was to cause a mistrial and force Aaron to switch to a less skilled attorney than the one he had, and she was able to use James to manipulate the situation to bring that about. If James didn't cooperate, he told Aaron, she threatened to "put [him] in prison for the rest of [his] life."

Of course, Aaron is still in prison today. You can read a little more about him in a column by the San Francisco Chronicle's Debra Saunders here. She writes about him every year, at Christmas pardon time, so far to no avail.

Unfortunately, Aaron's case is unusual mainly for how much attention it's gotten. The exchange of leniency -- or even money -- for testimony that will help the prosecution is an absolutely routine tactic in the drug war. The DEA, in fact, continued to use a "super-snitch" named Andrew Chambers for numerous prosecutions after a court had determined him to be a repeat perjurer. Common sense tells us that testimony acquired in this way is not always reliable. It is a disgusting commentary on the state of our justice system that prosecutors would use a tactic like that so often. The fact that the mandatory minimum laws that garnered Aaron his life sentences were passed by Congress with neither hearings nor expert advice in other forms (according to my colleague Eric Sterling who appeared in Bikel's report), is equally troubling. The use of these laws to imprison minor offenders for long periods of time is also very common, but the term "mandatory minimum" did not appear in your report even once. Nor did you mention it was an anonymous informant's incorrect tip that led to the killing of 92-year old Kathryn Johnston by police officers in a no-knock raid in CNN's own hometown of Atlanta last year.

Research by the Sentencing Project has found that literally one in three young black men between the ages of 20 and 29 are under the supervision of the criminal justice system -- prison, jail, probation or parole -- on any given day. Here in Washington the numbers are even higher. How difficult must it be for all of these people with convictions on their records to go on to find legitimate jobs? What kind of impact does such a massive and ongoing operation have on the bonds of family, friendship, or community? How many of these people go to jail or prison, what kinds of things do they learn there, how many of them catch serious diseases there and bring them back out? How often do they receive harsh mandatory minimum sentences like Clarence Aaron? At a conference I attended recently, a professor from Morehouse College, lamenting the situation, delivered a talk entitled "Where are the Men?" What should we be doing differently, or for that matter what should we stop doing, in order to address this? What does all of this do to change people, mostly in ways that we don't want, to cause more crime? I simply do not believe that one in three black men in this age group are criminals in any meaningful sense of the word.

I respectfully suggest it is the overuse and misuse of the criminal justice system -- not the words of some rappers -- that are the primary reasons anti-police sentiment in some of our communities runs so deep. I urge you to do a follow-up report to take a deeper look at these issues. After all, just because Lou Dobbs thinks we can stop drugs at the border doesn't make it so -- and if we could people would just use more of the drugs that can be grown or manufactured here. We therefore need to change the way we deal with drugs in a fundamental sense. Ending the disgraceful practice of purchasing or coercing testimony from "snitches" to send people away for years or decades would be a start.

Don't be a part of the problem, Mr. Cooper, be a part of the solution -- talk about this.


David Borden, Executive Director
Stop the Drug War
Washington, DC

Permission to Reprint: This content is licensed under a modified Creative Commons Attribution license. Content of a purely educational nature in Drug War Chronicle appear courtesy of DRCNet Foundation, unless otherwise noted.


Anonymous (not verified)

Nowhere in the Constitution is authority given the Congress to legislate in the area we call "drug control". It contains no provisions permitting the government to restrict, deny or even to regulate, except in interstate commerce, anyone's access to any substance they choose to use. PERIOD. Therefore, that authority simply doesn't exist, and the Congress and the Courts know it. The police know, just as we ALL know that these laws are not legal. Never have been. A cursory study of the Volstead Act will demonstrate as much. Even the "Single" agreement, the Treaty that all good party members claim as their legal authority to legislate such distatsteful acts, precludes any act that is not in agreement with that sgnatory's Constitutions or laws. And there ya have it. Let's don't even start to discuss the collective insanity these laws have caused, nor the violence the state commits in real lives daily in its attempt to criminilize an act nearly as common as breathing. It has taught an entire culture to lie, to lie to OURSELVES about any uncomfortable fact associated with the activity. We've taught our own children the "virtues" of such duplicitousness. What's truly the act of "liberal" politicians, as any true conservative not only doubts the purposes, ability and the jurisprudence of any elected bpody or person,, they don't like anything the government peddles, including their foreign adventures, their lying, cheating, conspiring, tyrant aspirations. Freedom isn't free, and people either need to LEARN this, or struggle with their inability to accept the very idea this country is supposed to be based on. Frankly, I think they are on the losing side, as even the VT incident seems to be awakening that understanding in millions..

Thu, 04/26/2007 - 8:55pm Permalink
Anonymous (not verified)

As a prosecutor I see the harm the 'stop snitching' campaign does every day. For example, I have seen case after case where an person gets shot and refuses to testify about who shot him. Initially after the shooting the police will be able to get a taped statement from him where he says 'Tookie or Mookie or Tyrone shot me because . . . ' When they are still angry they tell the truth. But then months and in many cases years pass and when the case finally comes to trial the jerk can't remember anything. The shooter gets released and sooner or later an innocent person gets killed. And no one sees anything there either.

This has nothing to do with the war on drugs. These people aren't thinking about that. They are just listening to what their hip-hop singers are telling them about how to stick it to the man. But they are only screwing themselves.

I could care less if no one ever cooperates in a drug investigation again. But when it comes to real crime, people need to start 'snitching' unless they like living in hell.

Fri, 04/27/2007 - 8:21am Permalink
Anonymous (not verified)

In reply to by Anonymous (not verified)

The war on drugs is what is fueling the underground economy. There's so much money involved that each cartel or gang has to protect what they feel is theirs. Because the market for the product is so large, the profits are staggering. As a prosecutor, you should know this. The only way to stop it is to take away their ability to make money. The law as it stands enourages and strenghtens the black markets. Black markets, as any junior high school student in elementary economics can tell you, are not regulated and have no respect for the law. If they did, they wouldn't exist.
Changing the laws to de-legitimize the underground economy is the only way to stop what drives the Stop Snitching movement.

Fri, 04/27/2007 - 11:35am Permalink
Anonymous (not verified)

In reply to by Anonymous (not verified)

If a crime is simply about violence, murder, theft or robbery I don't think anyone would need to encourage witnesses or "snitches". People just tend to Get It (tm) when it comes to that sort of crime, and that was pretty much the crimes people got sent to prison for in the old days.

But no wonder it requires more incentive to snitch on people who have only committed a drug related crime. Lots of people do not even consider it a real crime.

Besides, the laws that have provided the incentive for "Tyrone" or "Mookie" to shoot at this other guy probably are drug laws.

Sun, 04/29/2007 - 6:04am Permalink
Anonymous (not verified)

In reply to by Anonymous (not verified)

I spent the night in jail last night. I am 61 years old, white, and a homeowner and taxpayer (albeit not always on time) and I spent the night in jail. That was the second time for me, the first being when I was fifty. I always said when I turned fifty I would get someplace quiet and reflective. The lights in that twenty four hour hell were very reflective, but it was not quiet. The screaming and shouting went on night and day. I ate food I would not give my dog.
My first offense? I went to a police sting to buy cocaine and was arrested for two felonys, even though I never even saw any cocaine. I was charged with Attempting to Purchase and a second count called Soliciting to Sell Cocaine. They had me on tape and the best I could do with a private lawyer was a year on probation, 100 hrs. community service and a fine. Felony adjudication was withheld, meaning my 'rights' were left intact.
Eleven years later, Friday the 27th, I was popped in another sting. You would think I would have learned from my first experience, but anyone that truly believes that does not know the power of drug use. The cops used fake crack for the sting, and brought down at least 25 people I saw. We were herded like cattle through the process. It was a most efficient way to make money for the cops here. This same weekend I found out at the booking that they were running a prostitution sting, taking advantage of those weak victims.
I was charged with soliciting sale of cocaine and tampering with the evidence because I swallowed their fake drug when they took me down.
Total bond? $8,500.00 I got out yesterday morning thanks to my wife of sixteen years and a bondsman. I cried all day, decompressing from this experience.
I am going to fight this all the way to the courthouse this time. I will not bend over again for the goddamn system this country has created. If they want to give a disabled man jail time for a twenty dollar fake rock of coke, then so be it. As was said above, if one lives outside the law they must be prepared to be responsible for themselves. I would start a revolution if I thought it had a chance of succeeding in this computer age.
Thanks for letting me vent, David et al.

Sun, 04/29/2007 - 4:59pm Permalink
borden (not verified)

In reply to by Anonymous (not verified)

We're with you, anonymous. Thanks for sharing your unfortunately recent story.

In defense of our prosecutor friend who started this thread, he did say he couldn't care less if no one ever cooperated with a drug investigation again. I'm happy to agree to disagree with such an apparent friend to the issue regarding the causal relationships influencing people in the inner city to help the police or not help them.

David Borden, Executive Director the Drug Reform Coordination Network
Washington, DC

Sun, 04/29/2007 - 11:15pm Permalink
Anonymous (not verified)

In reply to by Anonymous (not verified)

It's a wonder this prosecutor gets anyone to cooperate with him. When you call people, i.e. victims, "jerks" and clearly look down your nose at them, it's no wonder they don't want to help you. Prosecutors who are openly hostile to the communities they serve are as much a part of the problem as rappers.

Tue, 05/06/2008 - 2:07pm Permalink
Anonymous (not verified)

Unjust laws will be broken. The addage used to go: If you live outside of the law you must be honest. Honesty requires that you take responsibility for you own actions. A snitch avoids this responsibility by offering up their friends and family in a sacrifice to save themselves. This is not new, Judas was a snitch.
Patrick Cannon
[email protected]

Fri, 04/27/2007 - 11:35am Permalink
Anonymous (not verified)

In reply to by Anonymous (not verified)

we need to define terms. If you get caught doing a crime and then turn in your friends to get a better deal then you are a snitch or a rat. People should not do that. But if you see a shooting or if you are shot you are not a snitch if you come in and testify. When people refuse to cooperate in investigations involving violent crimes then you have serious problems.

Fri, 04/27/2007 - 6:45pm Permalink
Anonymous (not verified)

David, thank you for articulating what so many of us are thinking! We live in a society where our United States Attorney General is rewarded with job security when he refuses to tell Congress what he knows to be true. Our Vice President is protected when he refuses to speak with police after literally shooting a person in the face. Every day police protect one another with the Blue Wall of Silence and refuse to give information about crimes committed by other police officers to the authorities. Can Anderson Cooper really believe that a few rap artists are more influential than all of this?

Worse, police systematically fail to offer any protection in inner city communities, so why would anyone trust them? People who go to the police in Black and Brown neighborhoods run the risk that the police will turn the story around and blame them for something. And people who go to the police can be almost certain that the police will fail to protect them from the violent criminal that Anderson Cooper expects them to turn in. Essex County/Newark, New Jersey reported just last week that they are completely out of witness protection funds - they literally have NOTHING to offer as protection.

The real issue is the failure of the police to offer true protection, and build trust, in communities that have a problem with violence. Everyone wants, and deserves, to be safe and secure in their communities. Until Anderson Cooper covers these issues, he will not be taken seriously by anyone who has studied these issues or anyone who lives through them.

Fri, 04/27/2007 - 2:16pm Permalink
Z.D. (not verified)

In this area, snitches have wrought more misery than previously thought possible. Our "Drug Task Force" runs on a steady intake of "intelligence" from drug users who are quite willing to barter information about their fellow users in order to be left alone in their own "endeavors". The police are more than happy with this arrangement, as it keeps the headlines touting their "success", and the court docket at full capacity. Bails, fines, forfeiture of assets, and so forth are now regular income for the drug warriors who hold sway here. The worst is this; the folks around here are more than happy to surrender all their privacy, and freedom, to those who would protect them from some crisis of drug use, not realizing that it's just the latest pretext to convince you that less freedom is more. We need help here, as the forces of freedom are at a low ebb, and malnourished, as well. So much for "mountaineers are always free".

Fri, 04/27/2007 - 2:45pm Permalink
Anonymous (not verified)

... on police, prosecutors, judges, government officials and administrators. Nobody is perfect and as soon as someone learns that one of these officials conducted themselves, immorally, put them in jail.

Fri, 04/27/2007 - 6:23pm Permalink
Anonymous (not verified)

In reply to by Anonymous (not verified)


Wed, 05/02/2007 - 9:29pm Permalink
Anonymous (not verified)

Keep snitching on murderers, robbers, and other violent thugs. Work to end the drug war as well. Then we might have peace in our streets.

Fri, 04/27/2007 - 6:46pm Permalink
Anonymous (not verified)

But I am really disappointed that he has joined Lou Dobbs as an ONDCP cheerleader. I am a law-abiding citizen, but I have completely lost faith in the police. Yes, there are some good ones, but the corruption has risen while morale has fallen, thanks to the drug war. It's all about who can pay their way out and who has friends in high places...shoot first ask questions later. There is no justice in America. Good cops don't want to be morality enforcers, and that's what drug laws are. They want to fight real criminals, not get into people's private lives. The people that join the force because they like the power over others that the gun & badge give them, love the drug war! They get to seize assets and nobody cares what happens to "druggies" they can beat them, rob them, rape them...whatever. The good cops have to go along with it all, or be seen by their own as snitches!

I'm an older white person and I hate Hip-hop & rap music, but I came to these same realizations without hearing hip-hop or living in a black neighborhood. I read, I'm informed, and I see the people next to their cars on the highway while several cops go through all their personal stuff, looking for a few grams of MJ. Meanwhile, we have a sexual predator epidemic going on, starting in Congress & Homeland Security! Better to keep the ignorant masses busy worrying about "druggies".

Sat, 04/28/2007 - 8:11am Permalink
Anonymous (not verified)

Law Enforcement Against Prohibition is a great group -- the "good guys". I am a non-law enforcement member. Not everyone who has come to recognize the drug war for what it is -- Prohibition II, is a drug user. Some are patriots and realists.

Sun, 04/29/2007 - 12:22pm Permalink
Anonymous (not verified)

The best thing that comes from this kind of law enforcement it the protecting of the snitches. I have a friend that has been arrested for meth a few times, not small quantities- she's got a problem. She steals identities to feed her habit. As I said she has been arrested and each time has been released with the promise of assisting in other drug investigations. As soon as she gets out of jail she goes back to stealing identities. End result is people's credit and finances are screwed in order for the drug gestappo to pad their stats. NICE SYSTEM.

Mon, 04/30/2007 - 5:42pm Permalink
Anonymous (not verified)

In reply to by Anonymous (not verified)

Criminals will snitch all day to get out of jail. I'm the prosecutor. I had one guy offering to turn State's evidence today in a robbery. I rejected the rat. He is just as guilty as the other two and I can prove the case against all three without his help.
The problem comes when you have someone who was shot or robbed and who doesn't want to come to court because he doesn't want to be called a 'snitch' and get killed by local gang members. That is not 'snitching' yet it is called that all the time by people on the street. And it is a serious problem! I don't like violent thugs running around shooting and robbing people.

Mon, 04/30/2007 - 6:44pm Permalink
Anonymous (not verified)

It's interesting to read the diverse perspectives, especially those of prosecutors. In general, as Borden alluded to, something like the anti-snitching mentality is best examined from an etiological perspective -- i.e. what could possibly cause even law abiding citizens in the inner-city to look upon the police as an enemy rather than an ally?
I remember being at a Dead Prez show at 9:30 club and Dead Prez certainly rep an anti-snitching philosophy -- but not one which is nearly as ignorant as that of Camron as presented by CNN. They had an audience participation callback of "Snitches get dealt with." -- I am a middle-class suburban college kid so I'm not from this background, but if you can't understand at all where minorities or the poor are coming from with their anti-snitching mentality then you have to expose yourself to culture more broadly...

There is an anti-snitching mentality, not only because the police rather than the drug dealers (and sometimes reasonably so!) are perceived as the criminals in the inner city. Even in murder investigations, my understanding is that not only is there a fear and stigmitization of going to the police in the community, but there is also a sense that someone else's justice is being applied to their communities.

To the suburban, middle-class, middle-aged, white, or otherwise "unhip" person who can't understand where an anti-snitching ethos comes from you should check out The Wire or maybe The Shield too -- not that I'm suggesting thats where one can learn a lot about these phenomenons, but if one can't understand where they come from perhaps this should help.

Although fiction, I feel like The Wire presents a really accurate depiction of the moral complexity of the war on drugs, especially in so far as how enforcement actions are inevitably received in underprivileged communities. The Bal'Mo police department's use of their CI, bubbles also represents the questionable use of self-motivated Confidential informants.
The depleted self-esteem of some addicts -- and their lack of moral scrupples (if they get in the way of the next 'fix) -- makes them easy targets from which to extract information. Drug users have a self-interest in offering up some information and are usually rewarded if their information is somewhat credible or useful -- though it need not be true in the least.
More violent criminals are in essentially the same position, where their self-interest supplants any aversion to lying they may have previously had.

The Shield is another police drama which highlights the legal gray areas in which cops are known to spend so much of their time -- i.e. in the sense that Joseph McNamara talks about the war on drugs creating an "officers liars club" for example.

LEAP is one of the best anti-prohibition groups around because their experience gives them such strong credibility, which is crucial in light of people's natural reticence to believe just how big of a fiasco are drug war really is.

Z.D. --Where are you from?
Prosecutor above where are you from also?


Tue, 05/01/2007 - 12:27pm Permalink
Anonymous (not verified)

I just wanted to make another point:

One thing one should understand is that though we view inner-city drug markets as a "cauldron of criminality" -- to use Stephen Duke's phrase --, to the inner city resident disturbances to peace and order are probably interpreted as happening primarily when the police enter the neighborhood. Drug addicts are a minor nuisance but not much more.

The drug dealers with their guns and 'thug mentality' are not (to poor inner-city dwellers) the villains we mythologize about; These drug dealers employ violence and violence is a deplorable part of the illegal drug trade and one of the main reasons we need to gradually move towards legalization. The important caveat though -- which we miss when only look at the murder statistics -- is that similiar to the wise-guy moral code, only those who are in the "game" are fair targets, anyone else is a civilian.

Another really important aspect is that even these gun-toting, drug pushers don't always fit the anti-social personality archetype we imagine them in. Not this is exculpiatory in a legal-moral sense (though it should be mitigating), but to the impoverished, disadvantaged inner-city minority slanging crack on the corner can be seen as the only means of making a living -- Biggie: "This is for all the people who called the police on me, when I was hustling outside my building, trying to buy diapers for my daughter."

Allen Iverson, the Newport News ("Bad Newz"), Virgina born NBA superstar grew up in this kind of an enviornment. Iverson has been asked how he feels about his Step-Father -- who was in and out of jail (for slanging rock) while Allen was growing up -- and Iverson frankly dismissed the implication -- that he was ashamed or felt neglected by his step-father's frequent absences -- of the reporter's question, instead explaining that his step-father had sacrificed a lot for him growing up and had done whatever he could to keep bread on the table for the family.

I'm not saying that anyone should support their family slanging crack -- but the black and white morality presented on the evening news lies in stark contradistinction to the moral complexity of reality. The sociology of law -- see Donald Black -- has also taught us a lot about the functional differences in legal attention attracted and adjudications administered on the basis of the social status and level of social integration of both the defendant and the victim.


Tue, 05/01/2007 - 2:37pm Permalink
Anonymous (not verified)

I tell you what the point is after I tell you what it's *not*. It's not about economics. It's not about making our streets safer. It's not about the children.

It's about not stepping on the freedoms of free men who are not causing direct harm to others.

(If you need me to interpret direct you should just step out of the debate altogether and leave democracy to the sane.)

(And if you don't agree you should step out of the debate and leave the debate to the non-evil.)


Yes. Evil. It is evil to lock up free men and women in a cage because they used a chemical to alter their own physical or mental state. Period. End of story.

And, then, it's obvious that the right to sell a substance to a free adult is also a freedom that shouldn't be interfered with, either.

This kid in jail -- maybe he's pretty old now -- for "conspiracy" regarding distribution of cocaine -- a drug that has been used by extraordinary amounts of people, including the current President and at least one past Pope in addition to nearly every popular rock musician of the 70's and many of my friends (ha! what company they're in) -- deserves an enormous f'ing apology from this entire country.

All of you who support the drug laws, if Jesus returns during your lifetime and you come to your senses, you should all get down on your knees and spend the rest of your life pleasuring him to make up for what you've robbed him of.

Murderers rob people of moments they could have otherwise lived and enjoyed. They steal life.

Drug laws do the same. Thus, so do people who support them. The drug snitches are part of this group, too. They all steal life.

You'll enjoy the same circle of hell.


Thu, 05/03/2007 - 4:54am Permalink
Anonymous (not verified)

I have people who were robbed at gun point or who were beaten up - they don't want to come in to testify for fear of being labeled a 'snitch.'
I had a potential witness who wanted to speak to me. He had good information about an alleged crime that would have cleared his juvenile neighbors of any wrong doing. He was afraid to speak with me, however, because those juvenile defendants had some of their friends in the courtroom. They were gang members and they were watching him. We eventually spoke in private and I dismissed the charges against the defendants - even though they were scumbag gang members themselves they probably weren't guilty of that crime. This is not snitching. Speaking to police officers and prosecutors and coming to court to testify about crimes (especially violent crimes) is NOT SNITCHING.

Yet, every day some defendant charged with a crime (usually drugs) will willingly agree to testify against his co-defendants in return for less time. They would turn in their mom to get out of jail. This is snitching. These people are rats. And it goes on all the time.

The main problem is that people aren't speaking to the police or coming to court when they are witnesses to real crimes - not drug crimes. That is why I am critical of the so-called 'Stop Snitching' campaign.

- The Prosecutor guy - I'll comment more about where I am from after I resign this summer.

Thu, 05/03/2007 - 7:30pm Permalink

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