As a series of high-profile federal indictments called fresh attention to the problem of witness intimidation in Baltimore, a collection of Instagram pages far outside the spotlight has been posting images of police cooperators — in some cases openly extorting them.
“Only cash app will get u off this page,” a posting on one since-removed page warned, referring to the mobile payment service CashApp.
The person paid $75, then asked why his information was still posted. “That was for the day,” the administrator responded, according to a September screenshot of a conversation uploaded to the page.
The Baltimore Sun is not identifying the pages.
“It’s dangerous. Real dangerous,” one man featured on the page told The Sun. He asked for anonymity because he feared for his safety.
Almost two decades after the “Stop Snitching” street DVD jolted Baltimore officials about the problem of witness intimidation, a series of recent cases makes clear the practice continues and has evolved, exploiting social media and mobile technology. Local law enforcement officials say they are committed to protecting witnesses, but at least one national expert says most agencies don’t take the problem seriously.
Concern over witness safety is acute in Baltimore, which has reached 300 homicides for the sixth year in a row. The “clearance” rate of solved cases remains stubbornly low, with the lack of witness trust being a key factor, authorities say. While technology has offered new ways to solve cases, victim and witness cooperation remains critical.
The man who spoke to The Sun about his picture appearing on a witness intimidation page said the posting caused him to delete his social media pages and try to purge his information from public records sites. He first heard from a friend that his picture and name were on one of the pages.
“It’s scary, man,” he said. “The way the world and the city is set up right now, having that hanging over your head, you never know who gonna try to make their little name or whatever” by using the information to cause harm, he said.
Authorities have long been alerted to instances of people using their own Instagram or social media accounts to lash out at witnesses, but the current pages operate as a clearinghouse of sorts. One Baltimore site that remains up has more than 6,000 followers. Another, since deleted, was using the Baltimore Police logo and the misspelled handle of “BaltimorePoliceDepartmet.”
It’s not clear whether the pages on Instagram that identify police cooperators are being run by one person or multiple people — there are overlapping posts — or how they are acquiring the information. The court documents they cite are from cases around the region, including Baltimore and Harford counties. Some are recent, while others date back a decade or more.
Most of the information appears to come from documents filed in state court. Some of the information on the pages appears to be internal police notes, the kind provided to attorneys in discovery, which can often be obtained by defendants through the Maryland Public Information Act.
One recent post, from Oct. 13, includes a 2017 police document showing a man begging police at the time not to identify him. “I don’t want my family in danger cause people [know] my family but I want to [give information] but I don’t want my name in a discovery packet saying that I know who the shooter was.”
The document is posted on one of the witness pages along with his picture.
The person running the page with the most followers told The Sun in response to questions that it was not his intention to get anyone hurt, but to send a message about cooperating with law enforcement. “I have this thing that if you do dirt, you should take whatever come with it - no plea deal, no ‘I’ll give you this person if..’ None of that,” he wrote, even though some of the people featured on the page were crime victims identifying their attackers. The person said he does not take or request money for content on the page, although that could not be verified.
“Even if I delete my page, another will replace me,” he added.
Liza Crenshaw, a spokeswoman for Instagram, said that generally Instagram “may take action on content revealing the identity of someone as a witness, informant, activist, or individuals whose identity or involvement in a legal case has been restricted from public disclosure.”
“However, this is a type of content that we often require additional information or context to enforce,” she said.
“On top of the distrust you have for law enforcement, you now have a culture that is embedded in our city — a culture that encourages witnesses not to cooperate and not come forward,”— Baltimore State's Attorney Marilyn Mosby
John Wilkinson, an attorney adviser at the nonprofit AEquitas, which provides training and resources to prosecutors, has studied digital witness intimidation and worked with prosecutors across the country, including Baltimore.
“For a lot of cases, police and prosecutors look at it as par for the course, and don’t often pay attention and take it seriously,” Wilkinson said.
He said getting the pages shut down, even if they pop up again, is a goal authorities should pursue. He pointed to the Suffolk County District Attorney’s Office in Massachusetts as one agency that has worked aggressively to bring charges.
The Baltimore City State’s Attorney’s Office has brought about 10 witness intimidation cases a year since 2009, though many have to do with domestic violence situations. State’s Attorney Marilyn Mosby said authorities struggle with three elements necessary to bring charges: “trust, cooperation and proof.”
“Due to the history and distrust of well documented mistreatment in our communities, there is a lack of cooperation for people coming to court. But, also a lack of cooperation about people telling us about the intimidation,” Mosby said.
She often calls Baltimore the “home of witness intimidation,” referencing the underground “Stop Snitching DVD” from 2004 that featured people denouncing government cooperators. That came two years after a firebombing in East Baltimore that killed five children and their parents.
“On top of the distrust you have for law enforcement, you now have a culture that is embedded in our city — a culture that encourages witnesses not to cooperate and not come forward,” Mosby said.
Monique Dent says her son, Malcolm Webb, was shot in 2015 and was labeled a snitch after he cooperated from his hospital room. The threats came his way on Instagram, and he had to be arrested to force him to come to court.
“He didn’t want to testify because he thought he was going to lose his life,” Dent said.
Webb, 22, was fatally shot Dec. 15, 2016, and police believe it was retaliatory. His killing remains unsolved.
“They don’t protect these kids. How can I expect someone to come forward for my son when they saw what happened to him when he did?” Dent said. “I believe the mentality around it is too far gone.”
Mosby’s office recently announced that it was expanding its public education campaign for victims and witnesses called “Together We Are Stronger,” which is promoted through billboards around the city. Since 2015, the office has received $7.9 million in grants, allowing it to double the size of its victim and witness services division to about 40 workers.
About 18,000 victims and witnesses have received services in the past two years, the office says; that ranges from something as simple as advising them about the criminal justice process, to providing counseling and rides to court. The office has incorporated a tip line so people can provide information on city crime.
Federal prosecutors, meanwhile, say they’ve seen the problem evolve as well, though not necessarily worsen. What used to occur when paperwork was being passed around the streets now simply takes place on social media, though that amplifies its reach.
In federal court, all plea agreements contain a sealed supplement to mask whether someone is cooperating, and the courts typically allow prosecutors to delay releasing evidence to defense attorneys until two weeks before trial.
Prosecutors say they offer protection to people who cooperate in their cases, which can range from moving a defendant to a secure area of a detention facility or temporary relocation. It’s rare for someone to formally enter the federal witness protection program, run by the U.S. Marshals Service, they say.
Some cooperators or witnesses turn down assistance, saying they don’t want to move or can take care of themselves, federal prosecutors say.
In one racketeering indictment unsealed this fall, federal authorities say a man and an innocent female bystander were killed in 2018 because a violent gang in Edmondson Village learned he was cooperating with law enforcement.
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And weeks later, another indictment accused a subset of the Crips gang of intimidating people they suspected of cooperating. The members used both social media and a menacing presence in court while one man testified on the witness stand, court documents said. Also this year, federal officials charged a man with the 2015 killing of a woman as well as her 7-year-old son so he wouldn’t give information to police about her shooter.
Federal prosecutors are again vowing to protect witnesses, including in a September indictment accusing alleged members of the NFL gang — which stands for Normandy, Franklin, Loudon streets — of ordering a hit on a federal witness and taking money to kill others.
“To be crystal clear, if you touch a witness, we will bring you to justice,” U.S. Attorney Robert K. Hur said at the event. “And we will bring to justice anyone else who is involved.”
Asked whether there were sufficient protections on the front end to prevent witnesses from being harmed, Hur said, “We do devote a lot of resources to make sure the trust is placed in us by the people who make the choice to cooperate are kept safe and out of harm.”
The indictment against the Eight Tray Gangster Crips gang notes one witness who was intimidated while on the stand in Baltimore Circuit Court, and continued to be harassed on gang members' social media pages. The Sun reviewed footage of that trial, which shows a prosecutor approaching the bench and telling a judge that men seated in the back row were making threatening hand gestures at the witness.
Baltimore Police Commissioner Michael Harrison said fear of cooperating is not an issue the department can get control of by itself.
“For a victim to be shot and not want to talk with police is something we have to change,” Harrison said. “The culture of violence and culture of not actively improving the neighborhood and community are tied together. We have to show that we care about the community but also demonstrate that we can do something about it.”