Vallas: Chicago needs better protection for witnesses

Vallas: Chicago needs better protection for witnesses

Mass shootings are rampant in Chicago. Arrests for those shootings are almost nonexistent. Witness protection is the key to changing that.

While the city’s arrest rate for violent crimes in abysmal, for mass shootings it’s non-existent. It will continue to be this way until Chicago can protect witnesses.

The 15 people shot last month in North Lawndale brings Chicago’s count this year to 33 mass shootings. The city again leads the nation in these tragedies, in which at least four people are shot at a time.

Mayor Brandon Johnson’s delayed response to the shooting was inadequate. Telling us mass shootings “are not exclusive” to Chicago, pledging to mobilize “the full force of government” to reduce the number of guns on the streets, pledging support for victims… it reads like a progressive version of “thoughts and prayers.”

What about pledging support for prosecution of perpetrators? Decrying gang violence? Pledging to use the full force of the city to remove violent offenders from the streets? Most importantly, what about pledging to protect witnesses?

Chicago’s lack of a comprehensive approach to witness protection is undermining the ability of police to arrest and keep dangerous criminals off the streets. Central to the perniciously high number of shootings in Chicago is the reluctance of people to report to the Chicago Police Department the identities of shooters and their associates. We can see this in action: in 2022, just 12% of all reported crimes resulted in an arrest, the lowest in the past decade. In murder cases, arrests were made in just 57% of cases.

As shocking as those numbers are, it’s far worse for mass shootings. Chicago consistently leads the nation in mass shootings and last year had twice the number as any other city.

Yet few arrests are made.

A Chicago Sun-Times investigation found over six years, Chicago mass shootings claimed 1,000 victims and 126 dead, but resulted in only two convictions. Witnesses and victims are afraid to cooperate in police investigations because police can’t protect them. The shooters are in their neighborhoods, and many are out on bail for other violent crimes. 

The Cook County state’s attorney’s witness protection program is very narrow and only helps those who are directly threatened. It does nothing for those who fear reprisal and retaliation. It does not go far enough.

Compounding this is that the SAFE-T Act treats the issue of witnesses as an afterthought. In Cook County, over 70% of those arrested for violent felonies are back on the street through the existing pre-trial release program.

It is incumbent upon the Illinois General Assembly to pass legislation to increase penalties for anyone who attacks a witness, victim or police officer. This should include requiring and even denying bail as well as requiring mandatory sentencing.

The legislature must also fully fund its SAFE-T Act mandates and replace local monies that had been used for restitution to fulfill its promise to provide annual financial support for local witness protection programs. Witnesses and victims must take priority in any legislation that claims to promote public safety.

That said, Chicago can’t wait for state lawmakers to act responsibly. A city witness protection program directed by the Chicago Police Department’s Bureau of Detectives can protect truly vulnerable witnesses and victims who proactively work with authorities to help identify and prosecute those charged with violent crimes. The program could offer relocation assistance to participants through the Section 8 housing program, offer LINK cards and make other resources available. Support could include extension of unemployment insurance benefits, health care coverage and in special cases relocation expenses.

The consent decree monitor’s community survey, completed before COVID-19, showed most adults do not believe CPD does a good enough job supporting victims and protecting witnesses. This is especially true in the Black community. Little wonder CPD has difficulty closing cases. Police can’t protect people too afraid to even talk to them. It’s time to give police the tools to secure the confidence, trust and cooperation in the community needed to arrest and keep violent criminals off the streets. You can’t prosecute if you don’t arrest and making arrests requires you to protect witnesses and victims.

Retired police officers with investigatory experience can be invited to return to provide the detective division with the officers needed to protect and support their witnesses. They can provide witness transportation, escorts, monitoring and provide faster responses to witness intimidation. This can be part of a much broader effort to provide the detectives with the support needed to make arrests in violent crime cases – including electronic evidence processing, social media monitoring, cell phone analysis, case review and management, and grand jury subpoena processing.

City funding can come from asset forfeitures from convicted criminals. Additional funding could come from enactment and enforcement of a “nuisance ordinance,” which financially holds those accountable who disrupt peaceful protests, loot, riot, damage property, engage in flash mobs or incite civil unrest.

The city must also enact its own public safety ordinance. Such an ordinance could even be used for more serious offenses. It could impose up to 364 days of jail time and include fines and terms of probation for individuals who intimidate witnesses and victims, threaten police, engage in hate crimes, commit more serious weapons violations, are in possession of a stolen vehicle, etc.

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