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Cummings praises Bernstein at witness protection forum

Speaking at a forum on witness intimidation, U.S. Rep. Elijah Cummings offered praise of new Baltimore State's Attorney Gregg Bernstein and urged law enforcement leaders to be vigilant in protecting witnesses and victims of crime.

Cummings praised Bernstein for hosting the forum, at the University of Baltimore law school, and said: "You have made a difference already ... The confidence of our citizens has skyrocketed."

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One year ago this month, Cummings was among a core group of supporters of former State's Attorney Patricia Jessamy who hung around into the early morning hours following Election Day anxiously awaiting the results. Cummings had joined others in criticizing Bernstein's plan for crime-fighting as one-sided.

But Bernstein's decision to hold a witness intimidation forum addressed one of law enforcement's most pressing issues - and one that is close to Cummings, who has pushed a bill in the Senate that would give millions to states for witness protection.

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Cummings recalled the 2002 firebombings of the Dawson family, as well as the Stop Snitching video that circulated underground, and said he has tried to be a role model for African Americans by advocating the importance of cooperating with law enforcement. "We've got to get people to understand that they have a duty to testify and cooperate. But they've got to know they'll be protected," Cummings said.

Cummings also referenced the murder this summer of his nephew in Norfolk, Va., a case that remains unsolved. "Our family is convinced it has to do with witness intimidation," he said.

During a brief panel discussion, before the rest of the event was closed to the media, authorities discussed ways to make victims and witnesses safe and comfortable. Angela Alsobrooks, the recently elected state's attorney for Prince George's County, said many people become untrustworthy not when they are victimized or witness a crime, but through prior interactions with law enforcement that involve relatives.

Baltimore County State's Attorney Scott Shellenberger, noting cases where information about victims and witnesses has been leaked onto the streets, said authorities need to continue to "push the envelope" with judges to keep crucial information withheld. Baltimore Police Commissioner Frederick H. Bealefeld III also noted increased efforts to intercept jail and prison communications.

"The people retaliating are not the defendants themselves - it's other gang members, their family members," Bealefeld said. 

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