Can I Get a Witness?

By Laura Spadanuta

Assessments. One of the challenges for witness-protection programs is figuring out who is most at risk of intimidation or retribution. “Part of the problem is ‘How much money can you spend? Who’s really right for this witness intimidation? Who really should get the money?’” says Grascia.

There’s no concrete way to determine who is at risk, according to Smith. “What we are doing in Colorado is just trying to collect questions that should raise red flags and cause a little more intense conversation with that particular witness to try and determine whether or not they need assistance, should be moved out of the area, should be given some kind of home security system, whatever it might be. But as far as any scientific tool, we can’t find that it exists.”

Robert C. Davis works for the Rand Corporation and is a coauthor of the 2007 National Center for Victims of Crime report “Snitches Get Stitches.” He says that there should be research devoted to assessing whether witnesses in gang cases are at risk.

“In domestic violence, for example,” he says, “there are risk-assessment instruments where you can say, ‘Okay, if there was an incident, and there was an arrest made or something, what are the chances that this defendant, this abuser, is going to re-abuse, or is going to do something worse or maybe even kill the victim?’ There are instruments out there to try to put a number on that, to try to quantify it.”

He adds, “There’s nothing like that in intimidation and gang crimes. So, basically, everybody’s going by the seat of their pants.”

Such an assessment might need to be a state or local undertaking, rather than a one-size-fits-all federal model, simply because each city has different dynamics at play.

Resources. Some federal legislators attempted to provide more support to state and local witness-protection efforts. Rep. Elijah Cummings (D-MD) has sponsored numerous such bills. His most recent effort, H.R. 933, the Witness Security and Protection Act of 2007, would provide $270 million to states over three years. A companion bill sponsored by Senator Charles Schumer (D-NY) was also introduced in 2007. A third bill, the Witness Protection Enhancement Act of 2007, introduced by Rep. Michael A. Acuri (D-NY), would have the United States Marshals Service create a short-term witness protection program for state and local jurisdictions. None of the bills passed before Congress adjourned.

Many jurisdictions often do not take advantage of their existing witness-protection resources.  “Snitches Get Stitches” found that to be the case in some cities in Massachusetts.

Awareness training can help. After Colorado required that prosecutors and law enforcement offer witness-protection training, use of available funds increased 20 percent, says Smith.

It’s also important for the state or locality to actively make witness-protection resources available through outreach to the witnesses themselves. “There needs to be some kind of proactive effort made,” says Julie Whitman, coauthor of the 2007 “Snitches Get Stitches” report and program director at the National Center for Victims of Crime.

Whitman found in her research that the designated witness-assistance advocate will sometimes wait to be contacted by the witness, rather than reach out. But especially in cases involving youth, that approach doesn’t work because the witness is unlikely to initiate contact. 

Community policing. Lack of trust between the community and law enforcement is a major obstacle to getting witnesses to testify. Archer and others say that when trust is evident, young people are much more likely to cooperate with the police.

And there’s evidence that children want this as much as society does. “Snitches Get Stitches” looked specifically at youth witness intimidation in various cities in Massachusetts. The report found that young people “expressed a desire for better relations with police officers and a sense of safety when those relationships were strong.”

There are community efforts to change public perceptions of police cooperation. Ronald L. Moten, cofounder of Peaceohol-

ics, an outreach group that aims to diminish drug use and crime among youth, has held forums to bury the myths of Stop-Snitchin’.

“We believe that people have been deprived of their rights and been deprived of being safe,” because of their hesitancy to cooperate with police, says Moten.

Whitman’s study found that young people tend to have a good relationship with school resource officers, who are police officers assigned to schools, but often don’t trust, or have negative views of, police officers in their neighborhoods.

Neighborhood police officers have a dual role. Anderson’s Bulletin points out that they are patrolling for criminals and arresting gang members, but they must also build trust in the community. That aspect of the job can fall by the wayside, but such work is integral to gaining the trust of potential witnesses. 

If police make an effort to be out in the community and come to people to help them before a problem arises, they get to know the people and the community gets to know them, says Moten. Then when they do have to investigate a crime, he says, the reaction won’t be: “‘Why they coming around? Oh somebody talking to them; they’re telling on somebody.’”

Joseph Mollner, a former commander of the St. Paul (Minnesota) Police Department who now works on antigang programs with the Boys and Girls Club of America, says he has even arranged activities, such as rock-climbing, between gang members and police officers to help build relationships.

In addition to the police, people in communities have to take the initiative to change the culture of noncooperation with law enforcement, says Moten. “Some people don’t believe that you should ever go to law enforcement, because they don’t believe the system treats [them] fairly,” says Moten. Moten advocates taking the approach of groups such as Mothers Against Drunk Driving, by forming organizations to make change.

Witness intimidation doesn’t have to lead to a lost conviction. After Moses was forced to abandon his initial prosecution in Sarabia’s gang-beating case, he immediately re-filed charges against the defendants with the hope that he could convince Sarabia to testify. He then went to the victim’s mother and told her about the courtroom snickering over her son’s no-show. She agreed to arrange a meeting between Moses and Sarabia.

Moses says Sarabia got so angry about the threats and “the idea of the [defendants] laughing while his head had been caved in that he became completely cooperative and showed up in court and testified. And these two guys went to jury trial, and they both got convicted and got long prison sentences.”

Many witness intimidation situations don’t end as well. But the case shows that communities, police, and prosecutors can win not only in court but also in the neighborhood—where the real battle against the gang mentality has to be fought.

Laura Spadanuta is an assistant editor at Security Management.





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