Everyone has watched enough crime dramas to know that one of the easiest ways to bring down a Big Bad gangster is to catch one of his mooks doing something illegal and threaten the mook with a ton of jail time for it. After spending some time thinking about what it would be like to spend 20 years or so in jail, the mook breaks down and tells the cops what they want to know. The cops arrest the mook's boss, the mook testifies, and everything ends happily ever after.
Sometimes, though, things don't go so smoothly. Sometimes the boss is so fearsome that the prospect of the boss looking to get revenge on the mook (or their family) means the mook will gladly take anything the law can throw at them rather than that. Bonus points if the Big Bad is either a Torture Technician or keeps one around just for this purpose.
Naturally, this can also apply to the general public, although in this case, it may be a more general fear and unwillingness to get involved that is the motivation. Tends to be particularly common in poor countries where the criminals may have more control than the government.
This is often the result of the Big Bad using Outscare the Enemy and I Control My Minions Through... (Fear). It's particularly likely to happen if the villain is The Dreaded or the crime organization in question happens to be Ruthless Foreign Gangsters.
A common variation has police threaten to make it look like the perp is cooperating with them so that they'll be targeted anyway, and their only hope is to take their chances with the police. Other times, the police may just resort to being really fucking scary in their own right.
- During the Stardust Crusaders arc of JoJo's Bizarre Adventure, the heroes have very little information on the Big Bad's Stand because his underlings fear him more than death itself. The most obvious example is Daniel J. D'Arby, who has a mental breakdown after being cornered to spill this information.
- The next arc, Diamond Is Unbreakable, demonstrates exactly what would have happened if he did talk, by the way; Dio's implanted cells turn the Nijimura Brothers' father into an unkillable blob monster with almost no memories of his former life. Almost, being the keyword here.
- Vento Aureo also does this, this time with an actual mob boss, the leader of Passione. The Boss is so paranoid about anyone finding out his identity that anyone who attempts it is met with Cold-Blooded Torture as a method to scare off anyone else who might try. Even the heroes of the story are terrified of him, knowing that betraying the boss means having to fight against a veritable army of gangsters since Passione controls most of Italy.
- In Trigun (anime only), when Vash defeats Cold Sniper Caine from the Gung-Ho Guns, he destroys Caine's rifle and gives Caine a chance to surrender. Caine, knowing his boss is a Kill All Humans type who loves pulling You Have Failed Me and You Have Outlived Your Usefulness in sadistic and terrifying ways, responds by calmly drawing his backup pistol and shooting himself in the head without a word.
- In My Hero Academia, during the Internship arc, the minions of the Shie Hassaikai attack the heroes and police who are raiding the organization's headquarters, even though it's an ultimately hopeless battle and Overhaul is only using them to buy time.
- In the Lucky Luke book "Billy The Kid", everyone is too scared of him to testify when he's arrested.
- Common in Diabolik, with mooks and even ordinary citizens being often too scared by mob bosses to testify against them. To Ginko, the only thing more frustrating than this when dealing with them is their tendency to piss off Diabolik, resulting in the worst criminal of Clerville either killing them or giving Ginko the evidence he needs.
- Mass Effect Human Revolution: Whoever Shepard's killer is working for, Harkin thinks their wrath would be worse than anything C-SEC could do. Considering double-crossing the Alliance Black Ops could result in a bioroid ripping his head off, himself being replaced by one, or both, it's very justified.
- Megami no Hanabira: The Flock, despite being cornered, outnumbered and outgunned against Mai and her friends, fight like absolute animals out of fear of what Phillips would do to them if they didn't. Sara attempts to talk them down, and for a moment it seems to get through to them, but then an ominous rumble of thunder in the distance intimidates them so badly they begin attacking. Then Phillips zaps them all to death when they lose anyway.
- Marty Peters in The Harvey Girls has a reputation as a difficult customer. He shot the previous blacksmith after his horse threw a shoe. Chris has just been made the new blacksmith.
Alma: It's all based on circumstantial evidence.
Chris: No witnesses?!
Alma: Well, no one actually saw the bullet leave the gun.
- The Dark Knight Trilogy:
- Sal Maroni spells this trope out for Batman in The Dark Knight. Everyone, from ordinary citizens to hardened criminals, is more afraid of The Joker than of Batman. No one is going to give Batman information on the Joker, because everyone knows that doing so would invite utterly horrific reprisals, things that are far worse than what Batman would do. What makes this even more notable is that The Joker isn't even a mob boss. In fact, the mob thinks that he's working for them, but they are still too terrified of him to give him up. Although eventually this trope is subverted when the Joker creates so much havoc and chaos that Maroni does give the police information to try to help them catch him.
- This also pops up in The Dark Knight Rises. Selina Kyle is arrested by Blake, and he wants to know what she knows about Bane, who Selina just saw break Bruce's spine. He offers her protection in exchange for information, but Selina just gives him a look of "Really?" that tells him it'd do no good. This turns out to have been entirely justified on her part, as shortly afterward Bane is able to completely outmaneuver and neutralize the police, and then seize control of the city.
- Taken to the extreme in Steven Seagal vehicle Marked for Death, where one mook is so sure that his boss can't be taken down and so scared of him that he jumps out a window when cornered by Seagal rather than act as The Stool Pigeon. It's brought up even earlier in the movie, when the Big Bad asks his mooks "Who do you fear more, him or me?" Their wordless reaction makes the answer perfectly clear.
- A Bronx Tale has the Innocent Bystander version. When the protagonist Calogero witnesses the neighborhood Mafia boss kill a man right in front of him at age 8, he doesn't tell the police anything both because of the street ethic of his neighborhood and out of fear. Later, at confession, he refuses to even tell the priest any details. When the priest encourages him not to be afraid because no one is more powerful than God, Calogero responds by saying "Your guy may be bigger than my guy up there, but my guy is bigger than your guy down here." The priest reluctantly concedes the point and gives up asking.
- The first Once Upon a Time in China movie also used the Innocent Bystander version. When Wong Fei-Hung beats the crap out of a powerful gangster and some of his men, all the people around applaud and cheer for him. Fei-Hung then says that he's going to turn the gangster in and asks for someone to testify in court. Everyone in the crowd that had gathered around promptly leaves.
- Notably averted (or possibly inverted) a few times in Payback. Several people tell main character Porter (an Anti-Hero who verges on being a Villain Protagonist) that the Outfit will kill them if they talk to Porter. Porter's response is always the same; "What do you think I'm going to do to you? Worry about me."
- Early in The World Is Not Enough, a character fears Renard so much that she commits suicide rather than be arrested.
Bond: We can protect you!Her: Not from him!
- In Timecop, one of the Big Bad's accomplices refuses to talk to the Time Police, because the worst they'll do to him is execute him as he is now, while the Big Bad can and will have him and his whole family Ret-Gone if he talks.
- This seems to be the case in The Usual Suspects when Kujan brings up Keyser Söze and Verbal reacts with stark terror. Subverted at the end when it's revealed that Verbal is Keyser Söze.
- A Walk Among the Tombstones. One character does talk, but then kills himself immediately afterward, for fear of the punishment he'd face.
- John Wick: Subverted. Viggo seems like the scariest guy around, and his son Iosef lords his position over everyone else. But after Iosef steals John's car and takes it to Aurelio's shop to get new plates, papers, etc., Aurelio recognizes the car, freaks out, and punches Iosef in the face before telling him to get the car out of there. Iosef threatens to tell Viggo about this, but when Viggo calls Aurelio to ask why, Aurelio simply says, "He stole John Wick's car and killed his dog." Viggo immediately understands, drops the subject, and goes to berate Iosef for his stupidity.
- In MYTH Inc. in Action, Guido needs to ensure that the shipments he's sending out from a warehouse arrive, but are either wrong or late. (It Makes Sense in Context.) To get slower deliveries, he decides to hire some teamsters, despite his limited budget. When negotiating with them he threatens to arrange an audit, and they laugh at him. Until he mentions it won't be Royal Inspectors doing the auditing, but Don Bruce.
- This is a recurring problem for the cops on The Wire and with good reason, as many characters who decide to become witnesses end up dead. This is particularly evident in season 1, where in order to convict Barksdale enforcer Bird who is on trial for killing a witness who testified against another Barksdale member. They have to have Omar, a criminal with a grudge against the Barksdale group, give an obviously false testimony because all the actual eyewitnesses are unwilling to testify and risk being killed for it.
- The Mentalist: one Victim of the Week is the son of a mob boss who is dying of cancer. The boss is on record as planning to kill the person responsible. Cho goes to investigate a possible suspect, who got beaten by the son's goons over a bar dispute. The suspect loudly says that the victim was a great man and he had no problems with him. Then he quietly tells Cho to come back after the old man dies & he might have a different story to tell.
- Police Procedural shows like Law & Order and NYPD Blue utilize this trope a lot when dealing with organized crime. Russian mobsters are portrayed as being especially intimidating, with a willingness to wipe out employees, witnesses, and families of same.
- In the Law & Order episode "Old Friends," Stone gets a recalcitrant witness (who was nothing more than secretary who overheard key conversations) afraid of this very thing to testify by threatening to publicly announce her cooperation, then place her in a cell with a known female Russian Mafia assassin. The secretary testifies and makes Stone's case, but then is killed by an anonymous Russian hitman. Overcome with remorse, Stone resigns.
- One episode of Psych was only resolved in a crowd scene where the bystanders were shamed/encouraged to come forward and start testifying about the behaviors of the gang in their midst. It was a Christmas Special.
- An epsiode of CSI had a hitman refuse a deal to name the man who hired him in exchange for not facing the death penalty, figuring he'd live longer on death row.
- On Justified, a corrupt FBI agent working for mob boss Nicky Augustine chooses to kill himself rather than be arrested because he believes that merely being arrested will cause Nicky to have the agent's family killed. Nicky later threatens Raylan's family in order to get Raylan to give up a federal witness. Raylan believes him and knows that if he arrests Nicky, Nicky will make good on the threat. Instead, Raylan gets a rival mob boss to kill Nicky.
- In season 3 of Dexter, the police catch on to the identity of a killer when a witness who had previously begged not to be deported away from his family does a complete turnaround at the mention of the man's name. They eventually secure his cooperation by tricking him into thinking that the killer is targeting him anyway.
- An episode of Castle has the former prison mate of a suspected serial killer wary of cooperating for fear of reprisals that the man can secure through his prison connections (which seem justified when he gets beaten in the yard). It turns out that the prisoner is the serial killer, and manipulated the suspect and the police in order to get himself out of prison.
- In the first episode of Lexx, an admiral in service to His Divine Shadow orders his ship to follow the Lexx into a Fractal Core as per His Shadow's orders. When his subordinate warns him that doing so would likely kill them all, he replies that since he's never gone through a Fractal Core before, he does not know that with certainty. On the other hand, the admiral does know with certainty the fate of those who disobey His Shadow's direct orders. So into the Fractal Core they go.
- Wiseguy. Johnny Coke Bottles is arrested by FBI agent Frank McPike, but jumps out the window rather than testify against Rick Pinzolo. The FBI makes the best of a bad situation by pretending that undercover cop Vinnie Terranova murdered Johnny to prevent him from talking, thereby increasing his Villain Cred with Pinzolo.
- Averted and then played straight in Elementary with Moriarty. After being arrested, Sebastian Moran provides occasional assistance to Sherlock in search for his mysterious employer. However, in a later episode, Moriarty tricks Sherlock into delivering a coded message to Moran, threatening Moran's sister if Moran doesn't kill himself. Moran goes back to his cell and smashes his head at the mirror repeatedly until he passes out. He gets a brain hemorrhage and is not expected to wake up. In this case, Moran wasn't afraid for himself, figuring he was tough enough to handle anyone Moriarty might send after him, but he did not expect the mastermind to find out he had loved ones.
- On Arrow, Laurel actually manages to flip this trope around. An arrested gangster initially refuses to give the cops any information on his boss for exactly this reason, so Laurel threatens to charge him with the murder of another gangster who worked for a different mob boss. The charge will never hold up in court, but it doesn't have to: the prison he's being sent to is filled with members of the murdered gangster's gang; they'll kill him long before his case gets to trial. He's soon telling Laurel everything she wants to know.
- Zigzagged on Daredevil. Daredevil does manage to force a low-level crook to tell him who he's working for - but the crook is so terrified of what his boss is going to do to him now that he's ratted him out that he immediately commits suicide.
- Exploited in New Tricks to get rid of a Dirty Cop working for a mob boss. Knowing that the guy would never be prosecuted, Jerry instead frames him for double-crossing the mob boss and warns him to get out of town while he can. The Dirty Cop is too slow to leave and gets killed by the mob boss.
- The Cold Case episode "Cargo" has a driver working for a human trafficking ring refusing a deal that would reduce his prison time (or eliminate it altogether) in exchange for naming the people he's working for.
- A variant in Warhammer 40,000; The presence of Commissars is to invoke this trope. The Imperial Guard may be facing Space Elves, Killer Robots, Horde of Alien Locusts and worse, which are really scary. But between a high possibility of dying horribly and immediate certainty of getting executed for cowardice, most Guardsmen would choose the former.
- Justified in The Darkness II and doubles as an example of Asskicking Equals Authority. Jackie Estacado is not only the don of the most powerful mob in New York City, he's the host to a demonic Eldritch Abomination, whose main powers include sprouting fanged tentacles and tearing people to shreds with them.
- There's an amusing scene in Max Payne 3 when the hero, still clueless as to how law enforcement works down south, suggests they just arrest the corrupt politician dealing dope and selling organs. Gee, why didn't the DEA think of that?
Max: So, you're here to bring him down?
Da Silva (chuckles) Yeah. Because I want to lose my wife, and my children, and get killed myself. All that, after watching him walk free.
- An overheard audio diary in BioShock has a smuggler caught and tortured by the Rapture police say, "...Whatever Ryan thinks he can do to me, Fontaine can do double!". Considering you find said diary on his bound, electrified corpse, that's pretty damn impressive.
- Shadowrun Returns: Hong Kong: Going into your team's composition would mean too many spoilers, but they're the kind of outfit that takes on armies and topples nations. However, none of them will raise an untoward eyebrow towards Kindly Cheng, Yellow Lotus 432 (Straw Sandal, middle manager) completely normal, non-cybered, non-mage human and your Fixer. Even a pair of Token Evil Teammates who regard Qian Ya, The Queen of a Thousand Teeth as only just making Worthy Opponent status are careful around Kindly Cheng.
- In World of Warcraft, Nalorakk, a powerful troll warrior with the essence of a god inside him, lampshades this trope when siccing his minions on players in Zul'Aman.
"Guards, go already! Who you be more afraid of, dem or me?"
- A recurring problem in Mexico's Drug War: ordinary citizens are reluctant to cooperate with the police and army for fear of retaliation by gang members.
- Barrier troops as a desperate measure. Stalin characterized his implementation of them at the critical moment of the war along the lines: "A soldier shall be choosing between a probable death ahead and a certain death behind."
- One of the theories about the Monster of Florence is that the man who was incarcerated for his first murders, Stephano Mele, knew his identity but was too afraid to say it.
- Likewise, there is a theory that the reason the convicted murderers of Marta del Castillo won't say the location of her body is that they don't actually know it, because they trusted a third person to get rid of it, and they are too afraid to out him.
- While hiding in Mexico after pulling off the infamous Loomis Fargo heist in 1997, David Ghantt eventually realized that his accomplices back in the States preferred to keep all the loot rather than continue to send him funds and had decided that he'd outlived his usefulness, causing him to (rightly) fear for his life. The story goes that when a group of men suddenly surrounded him one day, he turned to the nearest one and said, "Please tell me you're an FBI agent!" He was.