There’s a bill working its way through the state legislature that will give police $600,000 to establish snitch houses in many Wisconsin cities. A snitch house, also called a COP or “community oriented policing” house, is a small police department that looks like a house and provides “wraparound services” like after-school programming to the neighboring community in exchange for improved community and police relations. By “improved relations,” they mean snitching.
Senator Lena Taylor brought the senate version of this bill to a public hearing in Milwaukee alongside some other trash. There, residents, including many of her constituents, roundly opposed it. Nevertheless, Taylor went forward, promoting it at a press conference and then seeing it pass unanimously in the senate on Tuesday, May 11.
Now the assembly version of the bill, AB258, is coming up for a hearing in Madison on Tuesday May 18 alongside the assembly version of SB119, the notorious “fund the police” bill. SB119 is an empty republican provocation with zero bipartisan support. Governor Evers will certainly veto it. The snitch house grant is a bigger threat because, without intervention, it will actually become law.
There was clear, vocal opposition to snitch houses at the public hearing, and little support from anyone who isn’t a cop or a politician. Prior efforts to build snitch houses have met strong local opposition in Milwaukee and Chicago. Perhaps most emphatically, the program’s pilot house in Racine, called the Thelma Orr house, was burned before a cheering crowd last summer. At the public hearing, Senator Wanggaard insisted that the house was torched by “outsiders.” All the people charged with the arson, however, live in Racine or nearby.
Other measures to expand police funding have met strong local opposition in Milwaukee. LiberateMKE has mobilized many people to reduce police funding in the budget, stop the federal COPS grant and prevent police from pilfering the amerikan recovery act funds. At least in Milwaukee, it is clear the people do not want more money for police. We don’t want cops using wraparound services to recruit snitches to do their neighbors dirty, either. Nevertheless, every single senator, including those representing Milwaukee, voted for the bill.
Last summer protests against police exploded across Wisconsin. Protestors polite enough to make demands were clear: police must be accountable, and must be defunded. The marches continue to this day thanks to The People’s Revolution and other groups. Over time, however, the power of the movement has been watered down. Governor Evers turned down the Black legislative caucus request for a Juneteenth special session on police reform, then called one after Kenosha police shot Jacob Blake and the city burned. His handful of police reforms only scratched the surface of protester’s demands. The legislature shot them down without debate, then formed a slow task force that pretended to recommend reforms. Now, what’s actually passing the legislature are bills that increase police funding and reduce accountability, the direct opposite of what we fought for.
We expect republicans to hear protestors shouting “defund the police” and respond by tossing cash at cops, but when it comes to snitch houses, senate democrats–some of whom marched or spoke at protests last summer–have joined in, approving $600,000 in grants for police. If snitch houses get the same treatment in the assembly, Governor Evers will surely sign this bill, expanding police funding and setting up kindling for future fires across the state.
Even if the new snitch houses don’t burn, connecting needed community resources to the nefarious machinations of police is harmful. It turns neighbors against each other and expands incarceration. Milwaukee police have already gone to great measures to recruit snitches. They’ve tried coffee with a cop, then began targeting children by handing out free ice cream treats. They even delivered a giant teddy bear to one recently traumatized child.
The snitch house program would expand those predatory efforts. By partnering with service organizations to create a “wraparound” center with tutoring, video games, after-school and reading programs for kids, and financial or parenting advice for adults, the police create a bulwark in the middle of a neighborhood. From there they con people into trusting them, and begin to extract information.
People who grew up with officer friendly visiting our kindergarten classrooms might struggle with the idea that talking to police is harmful, so we’re going to take some time really breaking down policing, and specifically “community-oriented” or snitch-recruitment policing.
First and foremost, we should always remember what law enforcement actually does: Police and prosecutors are not paid to fight crime, but to put people in chains. These institutions are, in fact, quite bad at public safety. By their own numbers, they solve less than half of violent crimes nationally, and a measly 17.6% of property crimes. Moreover, it is impossible to know how many of those crimes were “solved” by convicting the actual perpetrator.
The willingness of police to cut corners, lie to people, and coerce false testimony has been frequently demonstrated. Even when cops aren’t knowingly deceitful, they rely heavily on eyewitness testimony that has been proven unreliable. Once someone is arrested and indicted, prosecutors open new opportunities for wrongful convictions. Only about 3% of all criminal cases go to trial, while the rest are resolved through plea bargains where prosecutors use their immense power to coerce people into pleading guilty regardless of whether they actually are. Overcharging, extortionist cash bail, and horrible, often deadly conditions of pre-trial confinement in county jails all put pressure on potentially innocent people to make a guilty plea.
Which brings us back to snitching. Prosecutors love to withhold favorable plea deals unless their target testifies against someone else. Again, the truth takes a backseat to securing convictions. Prosecutors and police interrogators often coach coerced witnesses, suggesting who to finger, or what details need to be filled in to strengthen their case. People end up saying whatever they think the interrogators want to hear.
A scope unknowable
It is impossible to know how many testimonies and convictions are based on lies because this whole process happens in secret. A false testimony will only come out in the cases when someone has managed to exonerate themselves. The National Registry of Exonerations documents 2,783 wrongful convictions since 1989, many of which involve snitch or eyewitness testimony. There could be many, many more that remain unproven. You can’t count what you can’t see, so we don’t really know.
What we do know is how upset the police get when people stop snitching. In 2005, a softer version of the well-worn adage “snitches get stitches” broke into mainstream fashion. People across the county, including celebrities and sports players started wearing t-shirts emblazoned with a red octagon that said “STOP snitching.” Alexandra Natapoff, a law professor at Loyola, wrote a great article in Slate examining the trend, the predatory police and prosecution practices that inspired it, and the reaction from law enforcement afraid of losing their witnesses. The shirts disrupted trials, Boston’s mayor banned their sale, and some departments promoted a “keep talking” campaign to counter it. John Chisholm said the “stop snitching” message has the potential to “destabilize the whole criminal justice system”. He and Milwaukee police pressured local sellers to stop printing them.
It wasn’t until 2009 that the federal government caught up with the trend and studied more effective responses. The office of Community Oriented Policing or COPS—a creation of Joe Biden’s now regretted 1994 crime bill—put out a report called, “The Stop Snitching Phenomenon.” This report frames anti-snitch culture as a dire threat to police operations: “The threatening nature of the stop snitching message intimidates witnesses and erodes trust between communities and police by undermining police efforts to involve communities in preventing and combating crime. This […] impedes investigations, arrests, and convictions, and could severely erode the criminal justice system. This problem […] is overwhelming for many police departments.” While we can’t see for ourselves how heavily police departments depend on snitch recruitment, we can see that at least they view the practice as essential.
In its conclusion, the report suggests some now-familiar recommendations to restore snitch recruitment. It states: “[the] success of a police department’s […] program will be based […] on its fundamental efforts to build trust in the neighborhoods, create partnerships with other criminal justice and social service agencies, and establish strong relationships with community groups and leaders.” This is exactly what the community oriented police house grant seeks to do. It is a countermeasure to community self-defense through anti-snitching culture. That’s why we call them snitch houses, and why they must be opposed.
The violence of snitch culture
Another thing we can know about policing is how badly it harms people caught in the web of false or mistaken testimony. The Innocence Project, ProPublica, the Appeal, Prison Legal News, and others have compiled reports with countless heart-rending stories of people across amerika going to prison because prosecutors and police used lying snitches to convict them.
The practice is particularly harmful in Wisconsin, where legal protections are weak and jail or prison conditions are atrocious. Until recently, Wisconsin public defenders were among the most underpaid and overworked in the country, making it easier for prosecutors to force people into bad deals with false evidence. There is very little support after conviction for indigent people working on their appeals in Wisconsin, and this state ranks last in the region for civil legal aid, making it harder for convicted people to sue over wrongful convictions and horrible conditions in prisons. For those who do manage to exonerate themselves, Wisconsin ranks dead last nationally in compensation for wrongful conviction.
Of course, district attorney John Chisholm isn’t going to share how heavily he relies on overcharging and snitch testimony, but anyone from Milwaukee in regular contact with many incarcerated people or people on probation and parole knows anecdotal examples of unreliable informant testimony putting people away. The CLOSEmsdf campaign revealed stories of people held on informant testimony and enduring harsh conditions to force cooperation.
The National Registry of Exonerations lists 18 cases of people falsely convicted in Wisconsin. The story of Chaunte Ott and Sammy Hadaway reveals the complex webs Milwaukee police can weave around people using snitch recruitment. In 1996, Sammy Hadaway was 20 years old and had cognitive and physical disabilities related to cerebral palsy. The police arrested him and threatened him with 80 years in prison for rape and murder, but offered him 5 years for armed robbery if he would testify against his friend Chaunte Ott for a crime he knew nothing about. During the fourth round of interrogations, after jailing and charging Hadaway, he got scared enough to tell them what they wanted to hear. By then, he had learned most of the details about the crime from the interrogators themselves, and made up the rest. Ott was convicted and sentenced to life in prison.
A third man, Richard Gwin, who is now deceased, had implicated both Hadaway and Ott after being implicated himself by a fourth man. Gwin later recanted his testimony, but Ott didn’t get relief until DNA evidence linked an unrelated fifth man to the crime in 2007. Even then, Ott’s conviction was overturned, but the DA’s office persisted in attempting to retry him until June 2009 when they finally gave up and dropped the charges. Ott received Wisconsin’s measly $25,000 compensation for losing the prime years of his life, ages 21 to 34, on a coerced lie. Then he spent six years fighting a wrongful conviction lawsuit, which he eventually won.
By the time the DNA evidence came out, Hadaway had served his armed robbery sentence, but he still had a false felony conviction on his record. He spent years fighting the courts to get his plea vacated, which didn’t happen until 2018. He has also filed a lawsuit against Milwaukee and the police who interrogated him, which is currently pending. These are just a few of the lives ruined by Milwaukee police and prosecutors. The public knows and trusts Hadaway and Ott’s stories because they were able to prove their innocence. Innocent people convicted without DNA evidence, or who are unable to get legal assistance are far less likely to recover.
Stories of exonerations are often framed as regrettable mistakes or side effects of an otherwise necessary system, but police and prisons are not necessary. Remember, police “solve” less than half of the crimes they investigate, and even for cases where they do capture the actual perpetrator, all they do is harm that person. After months or years of traumatic confinement and violence, people return to the community worse off than they would have been without police contact. Alternatives to police are possible. Given how ineffective police are for public safety, it should be no surprise that these alternatives are often advanced by the people most likely to be victims of crime: Black women from low income communities. Mariame Kaba from Project Nia, Ruthie Gilmore, co-founder of Critical Resistance, and the women of INCITE! are survivors of violent crime, and they are on the forefront of building alternatives like restorative or transformative justice to police and prison.
A renowned advocate of abolition and effective practitioner of restorative justice through Common Justice named Danielle Sered recently joined a virtual panel from Confronting Mass Incarceration held in Milwaukee. DA Chisholm was also on the panel, but we’re doubtful that this prosecutor will allow programs that take his office out of the equation. He has managed to maintain a progressive reputation, despite declining to charge Christopher Manney for murdering Dontre Hamilton or Joseph Mensah for murdering Alvin Cole, and slow-walking Baron Walker’s parole release, although he still took credit for it. The state officials on the panel with Sered were speaking an entirely different language, reminding us that we cannot rely on the state to develop restorative justice. We need to do it for ourselves. First we need to get the police and their violent, self-interested priorities out of the equation.
From snitchouses to jailhouses
The worst harm and longest informant-based sentences tend to come from jailhouse snitches. People who are facing or serving time have a much stronger incentive to lie. Juries are also less likely to put someone away for decades based on the testimony a child gave cops in exchange for ice cream and video games. But that doesn’t mean snitch houses aren’t a piece of this horrific puzzle. Information gained through community-oriented policing may help police set up and threaten someone with lower-level charges. That person can be put through the coercive jailhouse snitch-recruitment wringer to secure more substantial convictions against others. A snitch house helps the police get the jailhouse snitches that get the big convictions.
Put simply, everyone has a very good reason to not talk to police. Police hurt people. In Milwaukee, they consume nearly half of the city budget while they’re at it. In 2018, the Vera institute found that 79% of MPD’s 18,349 arrests were for non-serious, non-violent offenses, and that Black people were arrested at a rate 3.56 times higher than white people. That means eighty percent of what MPD does is carry guns and murderous intent into conversations about burned out tail-lights, dime bags of pot, broken windows, and loosie cigarettes. More than three out of four times they are aiming that violence at Black people.
We know that Joseph Mensah killed Alvin Cole, Antonio Gonzales, and Jay Anderson. Michael Mattioli strangled Joel Acevedo to death in the street. Sylvelle Smith was shot in the back. Derek Williams slowly suffocated in a squad car pleading for mercy. Christopher Manney murdered Dontre Hamilton for sleeping on a bench. Michael Vagnini and other cops sexually assaulted dozens, or perhaps hundreds of people in broad daylight under the pretext of body cavity searches for years. It is no wonder Milwaukee police need to hand out treats and teddy bears to children to salvage their reputation so they get back in our trust and hurt us again.
Elected officials who want to give police $600,000 for houses and more bribes scattered around the city are complicit in this abusive relationship, this predatory deception. Seems it’s time to remind them what we fought for last summer.
Attend the public hearing at the state capitol north hearing room (2nd floor) on Tuesday May 18 at 10 am. Contact your assembly representatives and members of the committee hearing this bill, especially the democrats: Mark Spreitzer (Beloit), Samba Baldeh (Madison), and Sue S Conley (Janesville). Talk to your friends and neighbors about protecting yourselves from the police. Film police and discourage people from talking to them. Take or host a “know your rights” training class. Read up on transformative justice practices and integrate them into your life.
Get ready to shut down any snitch house they try to build near you.