If you knew something about a crime, would you tell police?
Seven, maybe eight hands inched in the air.
Or would you say nothing?
An equal number go up.
A third group of students, slightly larger than the first two, stood somewhere in the middle. So Rick Frei, professor of psychology at Community College of Philadelphia, pressed the question.
What if the victim was someone you knew?
A child? A baby?
What if the victim was a drug dealer?
His students' opinions were so strong that he spent the entire fall 2007 semester with them surveying attitudes toward cooperating with police.
And the result - called the Snitching Project - is what likely landed him an invitation to testify next Monday at the hearing on Philadelphia's epidemic of witness intimidation.
For four days last week, The Inquirer detailed the ways the criminal justice system here has broken down, and I can't forget one line in particular amid all those column inches, the mother of a young, murdered witness saying:
"Don't tell nothing unless you can take care of yourself, because the city don't have nothing in place to help you."
Frei says he's not sure what the committee is looking for. But I bet he can illuminate some reasons that people won't cooperate with police. His surveys can help explain how those who step forward become stigmatized.
From the start of his project, his students picked up on the fear and suspicion coiled in poor, urban neighborhoods. He first asked students to poll people on the streets about snitching. Some of his researchers came back shaken.
"People wanted to know who [my students] were working for - the police?" he says. "People wanted to know if they were talking about a particular case." Everything seemed too close to home.
So instead his students surveyed their peers at Community College - nearly 1,500 of them - which he says provided a fair representation of the city.
Frei found that those polled were not as afraid of physical retribution as they were of damage to their reputations.
"To find out [someone's] a snitch, one kid said, was like finding out a baseball player was using steroids," Frei says. "People look at you differently. You can't be trusted. Your family can't be trusted. Even if [the victim] was a drug dealer who ruined the neighborhood.
"How do you get past that?"
Frei is 44, a Ph.D. in industrial and organizational psychology with a buzz cut and ZZ Top beard. The New York state native has lived here a dozen years. He says he loves Philadelphia, in part because people are so open about their lives.
And what they told his surveyors he found sobering.
Generally, students were more likely to want to cooperate if the victim was elderly or a child, infirm or known to the student. They were less likely to help if the victim of a crime dealt drugs.
He concluded that while a No Snitching code is glorified in some rap lyrics, it isn't the songs that keep witnesses from cooperating. It's that those inclined to stay mum gravitate toward music with that message.
But the message is pervasive in the culture, and to make his point he digs out a fresh quote from Washington Redskins fullback Mike Sellers, who didn't like the NFL's suggestion that ballplayers inform their medical staffs if they suspect a teammate has a concussion.
"We ain't no snitches over here," Sellers said.
While Frei strives to keep his opinions out of his scholarship, he says he will offer some ideas to the committee about what needs to change.
Parents are going to have to teach their children, and teach them early, he says. The media are going to have stop using the word snitch to cover all sorts of cooperation. (How about help?)
And until we can change the relationships of the urban poor with their police departments, there needs to be somewhere else to go with information about crimes, he says - maybe to religious communities.
"I hear from students that the cops come only after the crime. Where are they before? One of my students said police are like our health-care system. We don't try to treat the healthy. We only treat the sick."