Making witnesses safe

Police and prosecutors can't do their jobs if witnesses are afraid to testify.

When witnesses to crimes refuse to tell police what they saw and heard, everybody loses except the criminals. The police can't identify suspects, the victims can't seek justice in the courts, and neighborhoods are terrorized by violent offenders in their midst. Why do people remain silent and allow the bad actors in their midst to literally get away with murder?

The main reason is fear: In Baltimore, witnesses are routinely threatened, assaulted or even killed if they come forward. That is why legislation pending in Congress that would increase federal funding for state and local witness protection programs is urgently needed to allow citizens to safely cooperate with authorities without fear of putting their lives in danger and to ensure that they don't become victims themselves if they talk to police or testify in court.

The legislation, sponsored by Sen. Ben Cardin and Rep. Elijah E. Cummings of Maryland, would set aside $150 million in federal grants earmarked for local witness assistance and protection programs. Such services are vital to police and prosecutors in cities like Baltimore, where an insidious underground "Stop snitching" culture brazenly threatens potential witnesses in criminal cases with violent retaliation. "With the spikes in homicides we've been seeing this year in major cities like Baltimore, securing the safe cooperation of witnesses is more crucial now than ever," Mr. Cummings said. "Without witnesses who feel safe working with police officers, the wheels of justice will come to a screeching halt."

In an op-ed written for The Sun earlier this year, City State's Attorney Marilyn Mosby recounted the story of a witness whose family had to be relocated four times after they received death threats. At one point the situation became so dire that the witness had to sleep in the police department's homicide unit and be accompanied everywhere by armed escorts. Even after the case ended the witness had to quit work, move out of the city and start a new life elsewhere.

Officials in the state's attorney's office say they have streamlined services for crime victims and witnesses in order to more efficiently allocate the limited resources devoted to ensuring their safety. The office has a budget of $254,000 for witness relocation and protection programs this year and so far it has helped 79 witnesses and their families escape the violent criminals who threatened them. Officials say they want to do more to guarantee the safety of potential witnesses, not only to increase the number of people willing to testify but also to provide them with long-term protection after a case ends. But the budget for such services has been steadily shrinking in recent years, and without an infusion of new federal dollars it will be increasingly difficult to maintain them at current levels.

Mr. Cummings proposed similar legislation to increase funding for witness protection services in 2009. But the proposal gained little traction in Congress at a time when crime rates across the country were falling and cities like Baltimore were reporting sharp drops in homicides. That's no longer the case. The recent rapid rise in gun deaths in Baltimore and elsewhere should spur Congress to act on what has again become an urgent national problem of restoring people's faith in the criminal justice system.

Protecting witnesses and ensuring the safety of victims are critical to the success of police and prosecutors in the fight against violent crime. All too often a case can collapse overnight when witnesses are confronted with the threat of deadly violence from ruthless criminals. Authorities understand that they need the cooperation of the public to uncover suspects, build strong cases and win convictions. But that can't happen unless they can persuade more people to step forward and cooperate in getting violent offenders off the street. The measure proposed by Mr. Cummings and Mr. Cardin would signficantly increase the chances of that happening and it's an issue Congress can no longer afford to ignore.

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