The Talmudic laws of mesira prohibited Jews from informing against other Jews to non-Jewish authorities. This ancient “no snitching” rule received modern attention in the Los Angeles case of Rabbi Moshe Zigelman, an Orthodox Jew who was refusing to testify against other Jewish suspects before a grand jury regarding alleged acts of tax fraud and money laudering. The concept of mesira, which literally means “delivery,” dates back to periods when governments often were hostile to Jews and delivering a Jew to the authorities could lead to an injustice and even death.
Unlike Talmudic laws, American law enforcement loves undercover operations and snitches (unless the snitch is a police officer talking about police misconduct.) Joshua Reeves an assistant professor of new media communications at Oregon State University and the author of Citizen Spies: The Long Rise of America’s Surveillance Society explains that police have even encouraged kids to report on their parents: “In April 1990, a guidance counselor at a Searsport, Maine, elementary school summoned a fifth-grader to her office. The counselor asked the 11-year-old, Crystal Grendell, whether her parents used drugs. After the counselor reassured her that “nothing would happen,” Crystal eventually admitted that her parents occasionally smoked pot. At school a few days later, Crystal was greeted by three D.A.R.E. police officers, who interrogated her about her parents’ drug use. The officers threatened Crystal, saying her parents would be arrested if she didn’t tell them everything she knew about her mother and father’s recreational drug habits. The officers then warned her against telling her parents about their encounter, claiming that “often parents beat their children after the children talk to police.”
Records suggest the government’s network of cooperators is vast: In 2005, the DEA estimated it had 4,000 informants. There are 15,000 informants working with the FBI. That’s nearly three times as many as there were 25 years ago. In addition, for every informant officially listed in the bureau’s records, there are as many as three unofficial ones, according to one former high-level FBI official, known in bureau parlance as “hip pockets.” According to University of Wisconsin-Whitewater Police Chief Matt Kiederlen, “[a]lmost all police departments use confidential informants.” Incidentally, UW-Eau Claire and UW-Whitewater No. 2 and No. 11 in the nation respectively for having the highest proportion of on-campus drug arrests.
So what’s wrong with a snitch? According to Northwestern University Law School’s Center on Wrongful Convictions, 45.9 percent of documented wrongful capital convictions have been traced to false informant testimony, making “snitches the leading cause of wrongful convictions in U.S. capital cases.” And let’s be clear what a snitch is: they can beat people, maim them, or if need be, kill people for the right price. Law enforcement usually needs to protect us from them. But instead of protecting society from a snitch, prosecutor’s offices enter into secret pacts with him: If the snitch will testify for the state concerning an alleged prosecution, the snitch can get cash; weapons and drug charges pending against him dropped; he can be immunized from prosecution for a offenses he admitted taking part in; and can be turned loose on the streets.
Police and prosecutors become heavily invested in using informants to conduct investigations and to make their cases. As a result, they often lack the objectivity and the information that would permit them to discern when informants are lying. “[T]his marriage of convenience is fraught with peril, it is nearly devoid of judicial or public scrutiny as to the propriety, fairness, or utility of the deals being struck. At the same time, it is a quintessential expression of some of the most contentious characteristics of the modern criminal system: law enforcement discretion, secrecy, and the increasing informality of the adjudication process. The law enforcement practice of relying heavily on snitching creates large numbers of criminal informants who are communal liabilities. Snitches increase crime and threaten social organization, interpersonal relationships, and socio-legal norms in their home communities, even as they are tolerated or under-punished by law enforcement because they are useful. “