Atlantic Cities

Someone in Philly Is Using Instagram to Intimidate Witnesses

Someone in Philly Is Using Instagram to Intimidate Witnesses
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An anonymous Instagram user in Philadelphia has found a new and terrifying way to utilize the photo sharing app: Identify witnesses in violent crime cases, and encourage people to seek revenge against them. 

The Philadelphia Inquirer reports that an Instagram account called rats215 "has outed more than 30 witnesses since February, posting photos, police statements, and testimony on the photo-sharing website." Many of those witnesses testified with the expectation that their identities would be kept secret, yet the account has posted pictures taken in the court room as well as images of testimony available only to prosecutors and secret grand juries.

The Inquirer story suggests that the anonymous account runner is getting help from some people in high places: 

Though witness statements are sometimes available in court records when a case is closed, the names of witnesses and victims are redacted for their protection.

But in copies of statements posted on the account, witnesses are clearly and repeatedly named, sometimes with their photographs attached.

In indicting grand juries, tougher rules limit the disclosure of statements from witnesses and victims. Defense lawyers are instructed not to give their clients copies of such statements. The defense is free to go over the statements with their clients, but they can't make copies for the accused.

"Instagram has a clear set of community guidelines which make it clear what is and isn't allowed," an Instagram spokesperson told me in an email. "This includes prohibiting content that bullies or harasses. We encourage people who come across content that they believe violates our terms to report it to us using the built-in reporting tools next to every photo or video on Instagram." 

This isn't the first time criminals have used social media to encourage the harassment and retaliation of witnesses. Facebook pages targeting snitches have been started in Tacoma, WashingtonColumbia, Missouri, and Shamokin, Pennsylvania. These encourage people to report neighbors and friends known to be cooperating with law enforcement investigations. In the pre-social media age, witnesses and criminals who'd turned on their own crews had their testimony printed out and posted publicly in their neighborhoods. 

Most of these outlets, including Philly's Instagram bandit, don't see a difference between "snitching" and reporting crime. Ron Moten, founder of D.C.'s oft-beleaguered anti-violence group Peaceaholics, wrote an op-ed in 2007 arguing that there's a difference between snitching and calling the cops when someone guns down your neighbor or family member. A snitch, Moten argues is someone:

Who commits a crime but then blames an accomplice so that he can negotiate a lighter sentence or even go free. Often he tells lies and incriminates the innocent. People like that are the real snitches and they are cowardly. Snitching is a way for criminals to game the system.

But not everyone who talks to police is a snitch. If you're a victim of a crime and you or someone you trust cooperates with them, you are not a snitch. If you try to get rid of negativity in your community, you are not "hot" or a snitch.

Doesn't look like Moten's clarification has made it to Philly, where one of the "snitches" targeted by rats215 was a 19-year-old who testified about someone trying gun him down. 

Mike Riggs is a former staff writer at The Atlantic Cities. All posts »

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