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."
Scared, the girl agreed to carry out a spy mission on her family. The D.A.R.E. officers instructed Crystal to count her parents' marijuana plants and to provide details about their schedules and the layout of their home. When Crystal reported back to the cops, they informed her that her house would be raided and that she would not be able to stay there that night.
After the police raided the house and found several marijuana plants, Crystal's parents were arrested and her mother was fired from her jobs as a teacher's assistant and a bus driver. The D.A.R.E. officers had failed to make arrangements for where Crystal and her younger sister would stay while their parents were in police custody, and when the police couldn't find any nearby family members, they had to take the girls to the house of a distant relative.
Feeling that the police and school officials had manipulated her, Crystal—who was once outgoing and gregarious—became socially withdrawn and suffered from psychological distress. Reflecting on how the incident had turned her life upside down, Crystal later told The Wall Street Journal: "I would never tell again.…Never. Never." When a federal judge awarded Crystal a civil judgment against the D.A.R.E. officers, he issued a strong condemnation of how they had turned the fifth-grader into an informant against her own family: "This type of coercive extraction of indicting information from an 11-year-old girl about her parents is reprehensible behavior unworthy of constitutional protection."
This reprehensible behavior, unfortunately, is all too characteristic of a program that has long been criticized for using children to gather information about their families and communities. The only unique thing about this story is that the D.A.R.E. officers coerced the girl in an especially callous way. Most D.A.R.E. programs involve coloring books and special certificates, not threats.
But whether they use coercion or persuasion, D.A.R.E. and similar programs have much to teach us about American snitch culture. By conditioning children and teens to scrutinize and regulate their parents' and peers' conduct, these programs encourage kids to act like cops. And that makes them part of a long tradition.
Boy Police and Girl Coppettes At the turn of the 20th century, "Boy Police" patrols sprouted throughout the United States. As crime rose in many of the nation's cities, burgeoning urban police departments calculated that by recruiting a large number of young boys, they could maximize their forces' presence while also enticing youth to choose the side of law and order.
Consider the Des Moines Boy Police, formed in 1909 when the state of Iowa passed laws against shooting fireworks at Fourth of July celebrations. Because the Des Moines police were unable to enforce this new law over the entire city, they formed a company of Boy Police. Emphasizing "the sacred necessity of keeping the laws of the State," the chief organizer told her new recruits that if they ensured the other kids would keep the peace—and if they agreed to avoid early partying and shooting fireworks—they would be appointed "special policemen." A supporter of the project claimed that this "idea of authority captivated the boys at once.…With acumen which would have put to shame many a regular detective these little fellows went to work to track down every specimen of explosive which was being secreted for the big celebration. They told all their young friends that they would be obliged to obey the law, or else be arrested."
The patrols were also encouraged to "track down" other youthful offenses, even ones as petty as swearing, "defacing" sidewalks with chalk, placing obstructions on fire-escapes, or mixing ash and garbage. By policing their peers' conduct, one observer declared, the Boy Police would force youth to "absorb the lessons of integrity, uprightness, and obedience" that policing teaches, thus "promoting those qualities of manliness, self-reliance, and order."
The fervor for boy police was not confined to the Midwest. Captain John Sweeney divided New York City's 15th Police Precinct into 12 zones, each under the command of a single boy lieutenant aged 11–15. The boys on a street block constituted a "vigilance committee" responsible for enforcing the law on that block.
They were required to keep an eye not just on their peers but on their parents. Indeed, the boys' biannual progress reports gave special marks for "personal influence," which, in the words of the Christian Endeavor World, measured a boy's success "in persuading grown-ups to obey the law."
By 1917, when the ranks of his Northeast District Boy Police program had swelled to 200 members, Sweeney declared that "the boyish love of adventure and mystery, which usually expresses itself in the exploits of criminal heroes of dime novels and the yellow press," was now "directed to the imitation of the deeds of the real heroes of American cities—the brave, honest, and unassuming members of the police force."
This empowerment, of course, had its limits. Sweeney's boys had to enforce the law without violence or physical engagement; their responsibilities were confined to various modes of seeing and saying. Their ultimate duties, he emphasized, were to file daily reports of criminal deeds. "'Squealing,'" Sweeney exulted, "has become the virtue of 'loyalty to the force.'"
In 1915, to complement its Boy Police program, New York City recruited 500 teenagers to try out for a new girls' patrol. After six months, 50 of these girls were selected for the program, and each Coppette was given a beat to monitor. The New York Times chronicled the activities of one of these girls, "Captain" Celia Goldberg, as she demonstrated the daily work of a "girl cop." Outfitted with a blue cap and a brass-buttoned blue coat, young Captain Goldberg roamed her beat, looking for illegal and unsafe activities. Responding to a question about whether her fellow citizens took her seriously when she tried to enforce the law, Goldberg remarked: "They see this uniform and they know it means the law."
While the girls would sometimes join the boys to stamp out petty crime, the Coppettes were primarily tasked with regulating the health and morality of their parents, their siblings, and the children in their neighborhoods. These duties included preventing children from watching motion pictures without their parents, "getting after" merchants who sold tobacco to minors, ensuring that grocers sold clean and healthful food, and reporting underage girls who would attempt to enter dance halls. Goldberg reported: "Most of our work has to do with children and the home.…We have to see that our own mothers buy only pure, wholesome food, that our homes are clean, and that our own little brothers are well cared for. Then we are ready to take care of our other duties." The Coppettes thus helped expand the police's sensory reach into the family and other social institutions.
The Cowan Plan Such programs tend to gain momentum during times of social upheaval. During World War II, for example, as millions of men left their families to fight overseas, juvenile delinquency became an object of special social concern. As women rushed to fill the jobs vacated by men drafted to fight the war, the specter of the idle child rankled many social welfare and law enforcement agencies.
From Berkeley to Boston, local law enforcement set their sights on these children. In 1942, for example, an African-American officer in Washington, D.C., developed a "Junior Police Corps" aimed at steering the city's black youth away from crime. With the support of D.C. public schools, Oliver Cowan organized hierarchical patrols modeled on the civic police force.
In less than a year, he had enlisted more than 700 boy cadets and 100 girl "auxiliaries." By 1944, that number had increased to nearly 1,200 boys and more than 300 girls. Cowan attributed his success to an interesting recruitment strategy. A great deal of youth crime in Washington was carried out by local gangs such as the Oil Burners, the Bulldozers, and the Bone Crushers. Rather than arresting the gangs and sending their members to juvenile homes or prison, Cowan would approach gang leaders and say, "I know you know all about breaking the law. I guess you fellows know best how to get others to respect and obey it." He then offered them various social resources in exchange for abandoning crime and collaborating with the authorities. Surprisingly, he had a great deal of success. Their organizational manual, which the former gang members produced on their own and distributed to new members, declared: "Congress made the laws, we enforce them.…We as junior citizens are determined to abolish juvenile delinquency in our neighborhood."
The boy police and Coppettes were required to keep an eye not just on their peers but on their families.
The Junior Police Corps and similar programs across the U.S. had unintended effects on local youth politics. On one hand, integrating entire gangs into boy police programs prevented retaliation against newly recruited officers. But in many locales, animosity emerged between the newly minted boy officers and the gangs that refused to join the police programs. In 1951, for example, several youths fired rifles at boy patrol officers while they were serving as crossing guards at an elementary school in Watseka, Illinois.
The rising crime of the 1960s and 1970s gave rise to new kid patrols. Some of these—the Police Athletic League; the "White Hats" in Tampa—used badges, uniforms, and official titles to entice students to monitor their peers. But other nonprofit groups and police agencies began experimenting with a new model. In lieu of the uniformed police collaborators of the Junior Police clubs, student snoops now circulate more or less transparently among their peers.
Enter D.A.R.E. Schools are outfitted with countless mechanisms for surveillance and correction, from classroom design to detention to student tracking to exams. To supplement these tools, police officials and allied institutions have introduced more flexible programs of surveillance.
The most influential and far-reaching of these efforts has been D.A.R.E., which turns kids into weapons in the war on drugs. Founded in 1981 by Los Angeles Police Chief Daryl Gates, D.A.R.E. emerged in the wake of Project SMART (Self Management and Resistance Training), an early intervention program developed at the University of Southern California.
Project SMART was a collaborative effort between the university and administrators at L.A.'s public schools; police simply did not fit into the plan. Gates, hoping to build a closer relationship with the city's school system, approached Project SMART and offered to help by bringing officers into the schools. Alarmed by the idea of armed, uniformed agents of the law acting as mentors for students, Project SMART declined. Undeterred, Gates developed his own elementary school program that supplemented the SMART curriculum with police participation.
Displeased, officials from Project SMART accused D.A.R.E. of "ripp[ing] off our materials," declaring that "they took a version of the program that we had radically revamped because it wasn't working." Yet D.A.R.E. quickly dwarfed Project SMART, gaining a national presence during the 1980s. Benefiting from massive drug-war grants, D.A.R.E. spread to middle schools in 1986 and high schools in 1988.
Now active in 75 percent of American school districts and in more than 43 countries worldwide, and with annual expenditures exceeding $1 billion, D.A.R.E. is today one of the most significant youth governance initiatives in the United States. While its central mission is still to "provide children with the information and skills they need to live drug and violence free lives," in recent years it has added new areas of focus: internet security, bullying, school safety, and "community safety" now rank among D.A.R.E.'s core concerns.
To promote D.A.R.E.-approved conduct, uniformed police officers carry out a 17-session program that targets students from kindergarten to high school. The program takes pains to help students identify with the officers in their schools. In many communities, like that facing Chief Gates in the early 1980s, police saw D.A.R.E. as a chance to improve community relations with poor people of color. For one D.A.R.E. figure, Drug Enforcement Administration agent Robert Strange, this goal outweighs the initiative's educational value: "Forget about the drug education.…We saw a relationship that could be built between the students and the police officers. There's no other vehicle for that that we're aware of."
These bonds of identification make students more comfortable opening up about the forbidden habits of their friends and family members. This logic is perhaps best expressed in the "three r's"—recognize, resist, report—promoted by many D.A.R.E. programs. While this part of the curriculum helps students recognize drugs and drug paraphernalia, it also teaches them to recognize "suspicious" behaviors among their family and peers.
Keep Safe, Keep Away, Keep Telling This message begins in kindergarten. For instance, in the Child Safety Coloring and Activity Book, distributed by the Department of Justice in partnership with D.A.R.E., cartoon characters instruct students how and when to snitch on their peers and parents. The little book's most frequently touted theme is "KEEP SAFE, KEEP AWAY, KEEP TELLLING." Kids are encouraged to "tell" if someone "bothers" them online, if they see someone being picked on at school, and, above all, if they see evidence of drugs, weapons, or gang activity.
D.A.R.E. officers, like social workers and many school administrators, are required to pursue tips of a criminal nature, even if those tips are shared in confidence. One early D.A.R.E. manual released by the Department of Justice even gives special instructions to officers who receive reports that parents are using "dope"—that information, readers are informed, "cannot remain confidential." When these mandatory reporting guidelines are combined with activities and outreach materials that promote recognizing and reporting, local police departments often find themselves pursuing the tips of a vigilant student. In the late 1980s, after D.A.R.E. was introduced to Boston schools, police there received 12 calls a day from kids turning in their parents for misdemeanor drug possession.
In 1991, a 10-year-old D.A.R.E. student in Colorado found a small stash of marijuana hidden in his parents' bookshelf. Instead of confronting his parents, the boy called 911, informing the dispatcher that he was a "D.A.R.E. kid" and that he had found drugs in his home; the boy's local D.A.R.E. officer praised his actions. The next year, there were two separate cases in which Boston children ratted on their parents and then showed their D.A.R.E. certificates to officers as they arrived. As with Crystal Grendell's experience, such stories often end with parents arrested and fired from their jobs.
While police often claim they don't actively recruit informants from the student body, there is a fine line between "proactive recruitment" and the spy-and-snitch behavior encouraged by programs like D.A.R.E. Naive children often "recognize" and "report" without understanding the potentially devastating consequences of their actions. In Georgia, for example, a 9-year-old D.A.R.E. kid called the cops in 1991 when he found a small stash of speed hidden in his parents' bedroom. The cops showed up and arrested both of them, keeping his father in jail for three months. The distraught child told a reporter, "At school, they told us that if we ever see drugs, call 911 because people who use drugs need help.…I thought the police would come get the drugs and tell them that drugs are wrong. They never said they would arrest them.…But in court, I heard them tell the judge that I wanted my mom and dad arrested. That is a lie. I did not tell them that."
In Matthews, North Carolina, in 2010, a fifth-grade boy heard a D.A.R.E. lesson on the horrors of marijuana use. The boy was so affected that he approached a D.A.R.E. officer, informing him that his parents sometimes smoked pot. To prove his point, the boy brought one of his parents' joints to school. When the local police arrested the boy's parents, social services removed the couple's two children from the home. Remarking on the case, a Matthews police officer seemed undisturbed by the fact that the children had been taken from their home over misdemeanor marijuana possession. With a hint of pride, the cop remarked: "That's what they're told to do, to make us aware."
Beyond D.A.R.E., Campus Crime Stoppers—the youth division of the national Crime Stoppers organization—offers cash rewards for students to snitch on their peers for drug offenses. Different rewards are meted out based upon the severity of the crime: While a student who reports marijuana possession might receive $200, cocaine could net you $500. In some jurisdictions, students can be paid as much as $2,500. Some recent rewards divvied out by the Atlanta-area Campus Crime Stoppers include a $200 reward for turning in a classmate who possessed hydrocodone pills, a $75 reward for snitching on a student who made a bong out of a Gatorade bottle, and even several small rewards for ratting out students for skipping class. If a student is bashful about snitching over the phone, tips can be emailed, texted, or submitted on Crime Stoppers' mobile app, TipSubmit.
Stop Snitching or Keep Talking? While some kids are happy to scrutinize and snitch on their parents and peers, such efforts have also ignited resistance. The Stop Snitching movement, in particular, has become popular thanks to the high cultural profile of some of its advocates. (NWA, Busta Rhymes, Lil' Kim, Project Pat, Cam'ron, and other rappers have all embraced it.) After professional basketball player Carmelo Anthony appeared in an amateur documentary called Stop Snitchin'! in 2004, "snitching" was tagged on metal stop signs and "Stop Snitching" shirts and bumper stickers became cult favorites. (To compete with the Stop Snitchin'! documentary and related products, Baltimore police drove around in vans labeled "Keep Talking" and handed out their own DVDs and T-shirts.)
Much of the Stop Snitching ethos centered on the violence. Many of these shirts and stickers were emblazoned with guns and knives, featuring slogans such as "Snitches Are a Dying Breed" and "Danger: Snitch at Your Own Risk." In recent years, "snitches get stitches" has become a rallying cry among many young people, and kids who rat out their peers often find themselves faced with violent retaliation. Some scholars have argued that the Stop Snitching campaign has brought down murder conviction rates in some high-crime cities.
In 2007, the National Center for Victims of Crime (NCVC) released a report on these anti-snitching pressures. Among students who had witnessed gang-related crime, the report found, half never reported it to authorities. The primary reason was that they feared being attacked. In many communities, this threat of violence is very real. In October 2009, a 15-year-old Florida boy, Michael Brewer, called the cops after a fellow student stole his father's bicycle. When the suspect was released from police custody, he and four of his friends confronted Brewer outside his parents' apartment complex. Yelling, "He's a snitch! He's a snitch!," the boys doused the 15-year-old with rubbing alcohol and set him on fire. Brewer suffered second- and third-degree burns on 80 percent of his body.
Alarmed by the cultural climate that fuels this kind of violence, the NCVC argued that more resources should be spent convincing youth to communicate with police. The group urged authorities to enlist cultural figures that could compete with Lil' Kim and Busta Rhymes: "Communities should enlist spokespeople who are credible to youth—hip-hop artists and DJs, trusted youth workers and faith leaders, and youth themselves—to deliver the message through various media." This emphasis on media caught on with other seeing/saying programs, such as the "You Bet I Told" campaign in Washington, D.C.
This naive approach has failed to gain traction in most urban communities. A Washington Post report revealed the depth of police resistance that exists in these neighborhoods. According to one 16-year-old girl, "No matter how bad I wanted to tell…I feel if I snitched, I would be putting my life in danger because people with guns feel they have more power than people who don't. You just don't feel safe, no matter what." In such an environment, authorities are playing with fire when they promote a spy/snitch culture.
For some of the students interviewed by the NCVC, meanwhile, siding with the cops meant siding against their friends, families, and neighbors. As one student remarked: "We won't go on their side, 'cause they're not on our side. People don't trust the police." In many urban communities, drug dealers and gangs work hard to keep local youth on their side—they do palpable good for their communities, for example, by financing after-school programs. Explaining why he appeared in the Stop Snitchin'! video, Anthony described why many urban teens learn to respect the drug dealers in their communities: "Drug dealers funded our programs.…Drug dealers bought our uniforms.…They just wanted to see you do good." For the kids who benefit from the generosity of local dealers, that benevolence paints a stark contrast to the hostility they encounter from most cops.
While some students might see a friendly D.A.R.E. officer at their schools, many urban kids, like Anthony, grow up watching cops bully, harass, and even assault their friends. When youth/police programs attempt to finesse a competing structure of loyalty among these children, their efforts often fall on deaf ears. D.A.R.E. programs will continue to convince some students to snitch on their peers, friends, and families, but the police will never be able to couple their monopoly on socially legitimized violence with a monopoly on youth culture.
This article originally appeared in print under the headline "Recognize, Resist, Report".