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Make witnesses feel safe to help solve crimes | COMMENTARY

About 50 people associated with the group "Good Kids. Mad City" marched recently from Waverly Elementary School, pictured, to Charles Village to protest for the defunding of Baltimore Police Department.
About 50 people associated with the group "Good Kids. Mad City" marched recently from Waverly Elementary School, pictured, to Charles Village to protest for the defunding of Baltimore Police Department. (Kenneth K. Lam)

A 14-year-old boy was recently shot to death in the Coldstream-Homestead-Montebello neighborhood in Baltimore. It wouldn’t be surprising if his killing goes unsolved given that the Baltimore Police Department closed just one-third of murder cases last year. Compounding the pain of losing their loved one, his family has to face the heart-wrenching reality that they may never get justice.

Calls for defunding the police, which have gained national attention since George Floyd’s death while being arrested in Minnesota, aim to eliminate police abuses. Ending abuses is a worthy goal given the perniciousness of police killing the very citizens that they are meant to protect. Reform-minded public officials however should resist taking defunding too far and seize this opportunity to address the lack of justice for victims.

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Like police abuses, the lack of justice disproportionately harms Black Americans. Less than half of murders with Black victims are solved compared to almost two-thirds of murders with white victims, according to an analysis by The Washington Post.

Addressing this disparity requires that public officials jealously guard, or increase, resources for promoting safe cooperation between witnesses and investigators.

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To understand the barriers to police-citizen cooperation, I conducted a multiyear research project in Baltimore. The project included dozens of interviews with residents, law enforcement officials and, given their connection to the city’s violence, drug crew affiliates. I also surveyed residents in 30 Baltimore communities facing among the highest homicide rates.

The research points to a need for authorities, working with community advocates, to ensure that witnesses can cooperate safely and to encourage safe cooperation through public outreach. Residents often feel duty bound to come forward if they witness a crime but are skeptical that investigators will protect their identities and hold limited trust in the city’s anonymous tip lines. Witnesses tell stories of believing they were anonymous but their names later come out.

(Although witnesses can’t testify anonymously, information from them helps identify, locate and apprehend perpetrators.)

One young woman put it this way when asked if she would call 911 after a shooting: Raising one hand, she said, “The right thing would be to call,” and then raised the other hand and said, “but what about this side.”

Emphasizing the importance of authorities focusing on witness safety gets halfhearted nods of approval or skeptical reactions from those on both sides of the political spectrum.

Many progressives say that no matter how safe police make cooperation, their abuses will still prevent people from sharing information. In actuality, while concerns about police abuses are legitimate and prevalent, they do not appear to prevent people facing violence from calling the police. Since Freddie Gray’s 2015 death, there have been more, not fewer, 911 calls. Nationally, Black victims, who bear the brunt of police misconduct, are even more likely to report violent crime than white victims, according to research by a Boston University scholar.

Many conservatives say that people, especially in Black communities, hold back information to live by a so-called “no snitching code.” However, that residents are more likely to come forward if they can do so anonymously suggests that they are not abiding by an ambiguous community “code” to hold back information voluntarily. Rather, they fear the consequences if their names get out.

To test the importance of safety to potential witnesses, I filmed fictional television news reports of a shooting that were embedded into the survey. The reports show a police commander at the crime scene asking witnesses to call a tip line with the commander emphasizing that the tip line is anonymous in some versions of the report but not others. On average, survey respondents shared more information about the fictional shooting when asked to call the anonymous tip line.

Despite heated debate on defunding the police, there is more agreement on the issue than the public rhetoric suggests. Police recognize that other institutions are better equipped to handle social and health problems such as mental health crises and family disputes. Unless a viable and proven alternative arises, however, solving cases of violent crime can’t be handed off to another institution as police abolitionists want.

This is not just a Baltimore problem. In the past decade, 26,000 victims have been killed in major American cities with their cases remaining unsolved. This crisis has been quietly growing in the United States. In 1965, police solved more than 80% of homicides nationwide, according to the Murder Accountability Project. Now, they solve around 60% of homicides, and many cities are comparable to Baltimore solving just 32% of its murders.

As police reforms push ahead, officials should work not only to eliminate police abuses but also to address unsolved murders. That means protecting or expanding resources to promote safe cooperation between investigators and witnesses. With this approach, reforms can strengthen, rather than undercut, efforts to bring justice for victims and their families.

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Andrew Cesare Miller (millera@usna.edu) is an assistant professor of political science at the U.S. Naval Academy. These views are his own and not those of the Naval Academy or the U.S. government.

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