The Pandemic Brings Out Americans' Inner Snitches

Setting the cops on social-distancing scofflaws is dangerous to public health and a free society.


In the time of the pandemic the world's snitches are in their glory, pointing fingers at "non-essential" businesses struggling to keep the lights on and at neighbors brazenly standing too closely together. Rarely have entitled scolds been so empowered to tattle on people doing stuff of which they disapprove. Lockdown commandments hand them the opportunity not just to publicly shame violatorsan annoying hobby, yet one to which they have every rightbut to inform to the authorities, with all that entails.

As an epidemic, snitching seems to be competing with the virus itself in its spread.

"Snitches are emerging as enthusiastic allies as cities, states and countries work to enforce directives meant to limit person-to-person contact amid the virus pandemic that has claimed tens of thousands of lives worldwide," reports the AP. "They're phoning police and municipal hotlines, complaining to elected officials and shaming perceived scofflaws on social media."

As always, informers are encouraged in their excess by many government officials. Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti promised that "snitches get rewards," and his sentiments are shared by rules-makers and enforcers elsewhere.

A certain segment of the public has eagerly embraced the role of social-distancing Stasi, recording perceived violations of safe practices and not just reprimanding the supposed violators for exercising independent judgment, but handing their details off to the authorities.

"Pickup games of basketball. Co-workers enjoying lunch together. A child blowing bubbles while strolling down the sidewalk with family … are drawing looks of disgust, shame on social media, and a flood of complaints to police and local authorities, who are fielding a surge of reports of supposed social distancing violations," notes the Boston Globe.

To their credit, some police departments aren't so enthusiastic about the flood of helpful tips. Police in Las Vegas and Michigan asked locals to please stop clogging 911 with calls about construction workers continuing to build things and people out for runs.

That's understandable when you realize just how motivated many Americans are to fink on their friends and neighbors. Between March 23 and April 8, a dedicated tip line in Kentucky received roughly 30,000 calls from people concerned about the alleged social-distancing faux pas of individuals and businesses. They called "to report everything from fraternity brothers hanging out by a pool to factories that allegedly aren't spacing out employees," according to the Lexington Herald-Leader.

Tip lines aren't the only means by which Americans turn each other in.

Jurisdictions around the country have launched online forms so people can set the cops on "non-essential" businesses that continue to serve customers and people who stand too close together. Most are meant only for reporting violations by commercial establishments, but New York State's form accepts complaints about all claimed breaches of the state's restrictive social-distancing guidelines.

Of course, social-distancing guidelines exist for a reason: there's a pandemic on, and people are getting sick and dying. Nobody wants to end up on a ventilator and we all want to minimize the harm done by COVID-19. That motivates some people to personally confront those engaging in what seems to be unsafe behavior, or to publicly shame them on social media. Others, though, bypass the personal touch and instead report violators to the powers that be.

Reporting violations to the authorities, in most cases, results in a police response. And there are very few circumstances in which police interactions with the public make things better.

The risks inherent in setting the cops on social-distancing violators are summed up all too well by the story of a Brooklyn woman arrested for violating social-distancing rules by "hanging out" with friends in public. She was then jammed into a jail cell with two dozen other women for 36 hours. It was a situation guaranteed to increase the chance of infection and further spread of disease.

"The tactics that law enforcement officials frequently use to protect people—arrests and detention—are more likely to put people in harm's way," the ACLU warns, calling jails "'petri dishes' for the spread of COVID-19."

Yet that's exactly what people are asking for when they turn to tip lines and reporting forms that have government authorities on the other end.

Snitch culture is dangerous in a larger way, too, since it erodes the structure of a free society by breaking community bonds.

"Denunciations provide the means by which individuals can harm others whom they dislike and gain relative to them within their communities," wrote the University of Chicago's Patrick Bergemann in "Denunciation and Social Control," published in 2017 in American Sociological Review. "Ultimately, this can lead to a reorientation of society away from cooperation and trust, and toward hierarchy and obedience."

So pandemic snitches may preen and pat themselves on the back as guardians of public health, but they're doing long-term damage to the society in which they live. The virus will pass, but distrust of nosy neighbors who peer through the curtains looking for violations of one petty rule or another to report to the authorities will persist for years to come.

Does that mean you have to just grin and bear it if a business designated as "non-essential" opens its back door to customers, or if the people across the street gather for a party in disapproved numbers?

Well, you should probably give it some thought; you don't have to join them, after all. But if your sense of outrage is such that you feel compelled to do something, scolding in person is generally better than sending the cops to do the dirty work. Yes, that might be uncomfortable, but such is the reality of disagreements.

Or you could take a couple of photos and share a suitably outraged post on social media in a good, old-fashioned public shaming. People would then be free to react as they choose.

But, in the absence of immediately dangerous behavior like a violent crime, the worst possible reaction is turning to the authorities as a tattletale. You really can't claim to be morally superior to the subjects of your ire if you get them abused by cops or infected in a crowded jail cell. And you certainly have no moral standing if you erode our society with your snitching.

Who knows? Maybe snitches will come to find themselves on the receiving end of some public shaming by neighbors who prefer tolerating some deviation from the rules to a culture of tattling and fear.