Snitch Houses Reduce Public Safety

A bootlicker’s vision of public safety: Milwaukee police attack protesters last summer.

This is part two of our series on the legislation to create snitch houses, also known as “COP houses” across Wisconsin.

At the May 18 hearing, senator Van Wanggaard introduced the snitch house bill by  portraying it as an attempt at police reform. “The police cannot be an occupying force in an area,” he emphatically stated. But, throughout his testimony, when describing how snitch houses work, his reformist mask slipped. He described police using snitch houses to “take over” and “gain control” of areas, exactly as an occupying force would. The reality that he, a former cop, cannot grapple with, is that police are always an occupying force in the neighborhoods they target. The houses AB258 seeks to fund are simply the first bulwarks of this occupation. 

Senator Taylor joined in, describing the impact snitch houses have on the areas they target, but she relied heavily on some questionable statistics. She repeatedly cited a story about  “20% of people causing 80% of the chaos.” If you look up this stat, the first thing you’ll likely find is quotes from pop-economist Malcolm Gladwell, a sure sign that it’s dubious and exaggerated. Digging deeper, we found the actual source, a study from Duke University where researchers were looking to prove the “Pareto Principle,” a quirky theory that the 20/80 rule applies to many aspects of life and social phenomenon. 

That’s right, Taylor’s “fact” did not come from people actually studying crime to find a statistical conclusion, but from researchers working backwards, looking first for the conclusion. They surveyed 1,000 study participants on a wide selection of variables, and highlighted the “hits” where results approximated a 20/80 ratio. Turns out, 20% of their participants accounted for 80% of convictions. That fun little study is what morphed into Taylor’s story that we only need to worry about 20% of people committing “crimes”. 

Unfortunately, even if this experiment was repeated with a much larger sample size, and focused only on convictions, it still would not support Taylor’s conclusion. Convictions don’t really tell us much about “crime” (or chaos, to use Taylor’s phrasing). Not every criminal gets convicted. Consider that even FBI statistics show police solving less than half of reported crimes. That doesn’t just mean that they are bad at their purported jobs, it also means they don’t know a lot about what’s actually happening, leading to emphatically unreliable and invalid data.

In an excellent recent episode of the All in Wisconsin podcast, guest Dr Darren Wheelock came on to discuss recidivism stats. At about the 13 minute mark, he stated: “[arrest] numbers can be skewed. If we’ve learned anything from this historical moment, is that we can’t always trust administrative numbers, […] arrest statistics tend to show huge racial variation, […] other people have taken that information to say, ‘see certain people offend more’ […] but that’s not was arrest statistics are measuring, arrest statistics are almost a better measure of police behavior than they are of whether or not people are breaking the law.”

So, Taylor’s stat says more about who police target, than who is actually engaged in illegal behavior. When she says “20% of people are causing 80% of the chaos,” she should be saying “police blame 80% of the chaos on 20% of the people.” Targeting a neighborhood with a snitch house and seeking out that mythical 20 percent might make a nice, easy story, but stories are not reality. The issue with this nonsense stat was called out in public testimony, but she didn’t stick around to hear it. 

Taylor also brought out specific statistics from Racine, claiming snitch houses cause drastic reductions in crime in the area they target. These are also misleading. Firstly, it should come as no surprise that people do less crime within the immediate vicinity of mini-police stations, but that doesn’t mean people are actually doing less crime over-all. Snitch houses have much the same impact as surveillance cameras, hotspot policing, and broken windows policing. They saturate a targeted area and push crime out of it. Without addressing the root causes of crime, they’re just moving it around, pushing it from an area slated for “development” to a less desirable one. 

Instead of investigating crimes after they occur, these are all forms of “proactive policing” where cops try to predict the future, targeting and harassing people based on their individual evaluation of who is a threat, with all the race and class bias that entails. It’s like a dystopian sci-fi movie from 2002, except replace the futuristic technology with cops acting on a racist hunch.  

At the hearing, Taylor and Wanggaard confirmed this by talking about “problem solving” a lot. Wanggaard said, “it’s about problem solving. We had problem solving assignments every day that I went to work.” This vague notion of problem solving sounds a lot like broken windows. The police are there, making lists of people to go talk to about problems they predict will lead to crimes. As they go about “solving” problems, they are labeling people “bad actors,” guessing who might be the mythical “chaos-causing” twenty percent, and messing with their lives. That is not public safety. 

Police hurt people

Putting someone in prison is a violation of public safety. Every person who gets incarcerated, extorted, arrested, harassed, or killed by police are members of the public. There is a circular logic at play, where police can be said to protect public safety, because the safety of anyone who gets hurt by the police is automatically excluded from the conversation. “We’ve had countless meetings,” Wanggaard said at one point, “with Fire and police commissioners, alderpersons, county supervisors, audience with the mayor, the chief, it’s been an ongoing thing where we really have all the stakeholders at the table.” Look at his list of “all the stakeholders at the table.” Who is missing? Would you be on it? Your neighbors? If not, you’re at risk of being perceived as a “bad actor” or “chaos causer” and thus subject to police violence. 

Racine police chief Art Howell and his vision of community: a gaggle of cops with a picture of their favorite dead lady.

In addition to the direct harm police cause, they also aggravate and escalate harm caused by others. Almost everyone put into prison comes back out, sooner or later. With the low-level “problem solving” offenses that proactive policing focuses on, it’s more often sooner than later. People are not “rehabilitated” in prison, but traumatized. Traumatized people are both more likely to hurt other people, and more likely to be targeted again by police. Those coming out of prison are rearrested and reconvicted. We’re back to police choices resulting in 20% of people getting convicted 80% of the time.  

This cycling of people between targeted neighborhoods and prison has been studied by actual criminologists. Loic Wacquant called it a “Deadly Symbiosis” nearly twenty years ago. It’s a known problem, but politicians prefer easy stories backed by dubious stats provided by police. When snitch houses bring proactive policing to specific neighborhoods, they accelerate the cycle, producing a growing erosion of overall public safety. 

Not everyone in the room had made the unexamined assumption that police create public safety. At one point, representative Baldeh, the only Black person on the local government committee, asked Van Wanggaard directly, “did you come across any data that correlates police to security and safety?” Wanggaard replied, “look at Milwaukee” and tried to bring up other anecdotal evidence, about long 911 call times due to supposed understaffing. Baldeh insisted on actual data, and all Wanggaard could say is “I’m sure we can get you some.” 

Snitch houses and trusting the police

The main argument for snitch houses is that they build trust in communities. “If it’s ran as intended,” Taylor said, “It […] does not lead to an oversaturation of police […] It helps to break down the barriers and establish relationships between communities and law enforcement.” Wanggaard chimed in, without maintaining Taylor’s reformist language. “It brings police to a central place in the discussion,” he said, “I’ve seen first hand how they can take back neighborhoods from thugs.” We all know what the word thug means in a cop’s mouth.

Later on, Wanggaard’s mask slipped all the way off, revealing the military occupation logic behind snitch houses: “you get participation by the community […] in some of those inner city neighborhoods, they don’t want to be connected to the police because they are afraid of retaliation. The neighborhood is organized in a defensive position […] once you get a cop house there […] the officer goes door to door […] it’s a really good way to get into the community.”  

As abolitionists, we don’t think police should ever be trusted. They lie and they use lies to hurt people. That’s their job. Why do politicians want us to trust people who are going to lie to us and hurt us?

Even for those who are not abolitionists—whose actual goal is for police to be trusted—, proactive policing and snitch houses are bad answers. If you want police to be trusted, maybe consider making them trustworthy, have them behave more like they do in communities where they are trusted. That makes sense, right? Police are most trusted in wealthy white suburbs. Do police set up snitch houses and go door-to-door harassing people in the wealthy white suburbs? No! They respond to calls, promptly and effectively. In targeted, low income, urban neighborhoods, the police say they cannot respond to calls promptly and effectively, because they are putting most of their time and effort into preventing serious violent crime. How do they go about preventing serious violent crime? Proactive, “community oriented” policing: saturation, harassment, and brutality, exactly the things that erode trust.

Some actual researchers: Monica C Bell (left) and Daanika Gordon.

Monica C Bell, and Daanika Gordon, more actual sociologists, who actually studied crime and policing, found that police treat different communities very differently. Their practices reinforce distrust, as well as segregation and structural inequality. That is ultimately what snitch houses will do. If you don’t have time to read heavy academic papers, but you do like podcasts, where hosts make even dense subjects lighter with fun jokes, You’re Wrong About did a decent episode about murder that summarizes Bell and Gordon’s work, and goes in-depth into the increasing failure of police to respond effectively to violent crime.

In summary, at best, snitch house policing pushes criminal activity out of the targeted area without reducing the economic and social/emotional stress that actually causes crime. Indeed, police saturation and harassment adds to stress. It violates the safety of the people who get targeted, and destabilizes the lives of anyone who doesn’t cooperate or conform to police expectations. Snitch houses drive up overall crime, but push it to other areas. If you focus narrowly on the targeted area, you end up with the kind of stats senator Taylor cited repeatedly in the hearing and the appearance of a drop in crime.  

Pushing crime to other areas means pushing people to other areas and transforming neighborhoods, a process some call gentrification. The next article in this series will tackle that subject. 

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