Is being a Snitch a bad thing?

Enough years have passed that I can now tell the story. When I was 17-18 years old and living in Hyde Park Chicago, I was arrested twice for felonies. The arresting police officers both times were Sgt. Doyle and Officer Andrew Alinovich who were assigned to the Vice Squad, 21st Police District.

At some point during my police custody I was told I could help myself if I gave information which would lead to the arrest of others. I admit, I was scared. As scared as I have ever been. I can still recall some of my thoughts. I remembered being told the following two sayings. “Happy as a sissy in the Cook County Jail” (Chicago). The other, “Go in bitching, come out swishing.”

Both are references to the culture of rape inside the county jail. The officers said to me on one occasion that, “with your long hair you will be somebody’s bitch before the night is over.” FYI, I was 5’7″, weighed about 130 lbs and had long dark hair.

In addition to the immediate threat of jail, there was the additional fear of the Illinois prison system where the rape culture was as much or more prominent. Many of my friends had been to jail or prison and told me how dangerous it was and various survival tips. Tip number one. When other prisoners begin to threaten to attack me, jump on the biggest one and fight for my life. They told me I would lose and get beat up but I would get the respect of the other prisoners for being a “man”. And maybe if I showed them I was a man, they might not rape me. Not a strategy I wanted to test out.

The first time, I was in the station and a lieutenant walked by and asked the arresting officers how old was I. When he was advised that I was 17, he told them to take away my pack of Marlborough cigarettes because I was not old enough to have them. Sgt Doyle replied that it was okay because I was going to cooperate. He looked at me as if for confirmation and he let me have one of my cigarettes. I lit it and he waited for my actual cooperation. When I blew the smoke out of my lungs but did not speak, he said, “stop with the fucking smoke signals Cochise and start talking!”

So, I sat in police custody, chewed my lower lip half off and thought about who, what where I could tell the police about which might result in my release. My mind raced like never before. The officers just stared at me waiting for me to tell them something. Names of wrong-doers came to mind. I evaluated at lightning speed the various persons and what I knew about them.

So now the reveal at the time of my first felony arrest. I think my voice was shaking when I said, “I don’t know anything that you want to know”.  The look of disdain on  Sergeant Doyle’s face had a hint of hatred, he turned and typed up my arrest report before transferring me to a cell where I was held alone. Several hours later I bonded out, unharmed.

The first arrest led to a sentence of court supervision for one year. If I violated my court supervision, I could be sent to an Illinois prison for 6 to 15 years. The second time I was arrested was about year or so later. This Sunday morning, Alinovich and Doyle spotted me standing outside a coffee-shop at the corner of 53rd and Hyde Park Boulevard.

Pulling up alongside me, they ordered me into their unmarked police car. They searched me quite thoroughly. I had no drugs on me. What I did have was a draft card belonging to someone else which I carried to buy alcohol and avoid curfew violations. I will never forget the look on Officer Alinovich’s face as he discovered the card. He asked me with glee if I knew the penalty for unlawful possession of a draft card. He was delighted to share with me that,

Anyone shown to have possession of any selective service card not duly issued to him, such possession shall be deemed sufficient evidence to establish an intent to use such certificate for purposes of false identification or representation, and may be fined up to  $10,000 or be imprisoned for not more than five years, or both.

The cuffs went on and off we began the drive to the police station. I begged them to let me go. I told them my court supervision was one more week and this would violate my condition of supervision. Sgt Doyle pulled over and stopped on a quiet street. He turned around and asked me what I could tell him to help myself. Who was I willing to give up?

At the time of my first arrest I did not know that I was facing a lengthy prison sentence under Illinois law. I had been charged with possession of marijuana and possession of stolen or mislaid property. Both felonies.

Now I knew what the stakes were now. I remembered the judge admonishing me of the period of incarceration I would face upon a finding that I had failed to abide by the conditions of my supervision. I was on the verge of tears thinking of the consequences. I am sure I would have cried but I knew that somehow that would make things worse.

Both officers were turned around in the car looking at me in the back seat. Man, the silence was deafening. The noise in my head was deafening. Again I raced through the possibilities of cooperating, who to snitch out and how to survive being a snitch.

I do not know if it was true, but I convinced myself in that moment that being a snitch was a core violation of my values and that I would not be safe if I did provide information. I finally broke the silence and told them I could not help. Once again, the look of disdain was prominent on both their faces. They turned and Doyle put the car back in gear and off we went.

Just as we neared the main road to the station, (Lake Shore Drive) Doyle pulled to the curb. He looked at Alinovich and told him “get him the fuck out this car”. Alinovich looked confused and unsure. Doyle repeated, “just get him out of my fucking car”. Alinovich opened the back door from the outside, uncuffed me, got back in the car and off they drove. No explanation. No charges.

About a week later I appeared in court and my supervision was terminated successfully. I met Officer Alinovich two more times. Once he walked in to my dad’s lumber yard with his family to buy building materials for his house. I was in my early 20s. We chatted amicably and of course I gave him the police discount.

The next time I was in downtown Chicago and encountered him inside a building on the Magnificent Mile, Michigan Avenue. He told me he was now assigned to taxicab violation enforcement. The Vice Squads had been renamed, Tactical Patrol. Doyle had either retired or died, I cannot recall which. We were pleasant to each other.

I was arrested a couple of more times by other Chicago police for a variety of crimes. But I was never offered freedom in exchange for information. I am glad I do not have to look back on my past and mull over how I decided to be a snitch. But full disclosure, I wanted to. I wanted to so bad, I do not know why or how I refrained.

Footnote. Many years later I did a television interview along with a Chicago Police Commander on the subject of street gangs. We chatted afterwards and we realized he had been assigned to the Gang Crimes unit in my community when I was young. He asked me as an aside if I wanted to guess who had been a snitch. I had no one in mind so he told me. It was a young man I knew fairly well and to whom I had sold what I believed to be a stolen US army rifle. I have discovered over the years that I was often closer to peril than I knew. But those stories are for another day.

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