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When People Don't Trust the Criminal Justice System, What's a City To Do?

By Mark Konkol | November 20, 2015 5:34am | Updated on November 20, 2015 11:35am

[Getty Images/Scott Olson]

CHICAGO — When drug cartel insiders or mafia hitmen rat out criminal associates to the feds, even cold-blooded killers can trade their testimony for freedom. Once they’re in the federal witness protection program, those cooperating witnesses get set up with new lives, complete with new identities, far away from bad guys who might want to silence them for good.

In Chicago, gang crime witnesses willing to testify against shooters in court can’t count on their local government to protect them like that.

When Kimberly Harris of Lawndale agreed to testify against her boyfriend’s killer in 2012, prosecutors offered the 29-year-old “protection.” But it wasn’t much more than cash to pay for movers and first month’s rent on an apartment in a different part of town.

Like a lot of people, Harris declined the modest relocation offer.

What made her different is she still decided to take the witness stand against the man who shot her and killed her boyfriend, authorities said.

Sadly, she never got the chance.

In April 2012, the notoriously violent street gang connected to her boyfriend’s murder caught up with Harris and offered her $20,000 to keep quiet. Then, two days later, they sent paid assassins to silence her for good. They fatally shot Harris 20 times, including three bullets to the face.

If Chicago politicians and bully pulpit preachers want to know why some people remain reluctant to live up to what Mayor Rahm Emanuel called the “moral responsibility” to cooperate with police and testify against the cold-blooded killer who executed 9-year-old Tyshawn Lee, they should remember Kimberly Harris.

People who live in the most violent parts of Chicago sure do.

Harris’s brutal murder stands as an ultimate reminder that local leaders don’t offer cooperating witnesses much protection from the potentially grave consequences of identifying and testifying against the gang-affiliated triggermen terrorizing our town.

Fear of those consequences remains the beating heart of the “no-snitch” code of silence on the street — the No. 1 reason why only about 10 percent of people who shoot and wound someone in Chicago get caught.

[Getty Images/Scott Olson]

Want to know why people involved in the alley execution of Tyshawn remain at large despite a $55,000 reward and a public outcry for people navigating gang war zones to fulfill a moral retaliation to our city?

It’s fear of retribution — and a pervasive lack of trust in the local criminal justice system — that keeps people quiet, gang experts, policymakers and street-level interrupters will tell you.

Witnesses and tipsters who could help police build a case that leads to homicide charges against Tyshawn’s killer have given investigators enough information to identify a suspect who is now locked up on unrelated gun charges.

The trouble is those cooperating witnesses remain unwilling to testify against Tyshawn’s alleged killer because they’re scared of the threat of facing very real consequences for doing the right thing, police sources say.

For five years now, I’ve been writing about the no-snitch code of silence that contributes to what remains the most shocking statistic related to the bloodshed in Chicago: About 90 percent of gunmen involved in nonfatal shootings escape charges and remain on the street, unafraid to shoot and kill again and again.

By all means, the no-snitch culture isn’t the only problem that allows our city’s shooting culture to thrive. There’s the flood of illegal guns into violent parts of town, too.

Mayor Rahm Emanuel and his top cop, Supt. Garry McCarthy, will tell you we need common-sense gun laws, including mandatory sentences for gang members and repeat offenders charged with felony gun crimes.

Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle says Chicago’s troubles with street violence and the unwillingness of witnesses to cooperate with authorities are the byproduct of the inequitable way “communities of color are overly policed” and the long history of law enforcement corruption that has made Chicago what she called the “wrongful conviction capital of the nation.”

She offered an example.

“I talked to one of the judges who told me, 'I want you to know that police bring in black and brown people for shooting dice. They would never arrest white kids for that.’ White kids do not get arrested for things like that,” Preckwinkle said.

“I talk about the jail being at the intersection of racism and poverty. You can imagine what people in the street have to say. … If we can’t all acknowledge that the country we live in struggles with profound racism and that we need to figure out how to attack that issue across a variety of substantive areas, including criminal justice, then we’re not ever going to get to the bottom of it.”

Tio Hardiman, president of Violence Interrupters Incorporated, a guy who has his finger on the pulse of the street, will tell you people living in violent parts of town have no faith in the local criminal justice system.

“We’ve got McCarthyism going on. I’m talking about our failed superintendent of police. These are people living in distressed communities, and there’s a lot of mistrust,” he said.

“The trust level of the police is at an all-time low. Trust of prosecutors is at an all-time low. You’ve got individuals who just aren’t going to take chances getting involved with them. There’s no faith that the system will protect them at all.”

They all make good points, and still there are more reasons the shooting hasn’t stopped in Chicago.

For generations, we’ve allowed entire neighborhoods to suffer in desperation, poverty and hopelessness, harboring the culprits of Chicago’s shooting culture.

When you consider that mountain of problems, it should be no surprise some people shrug their shoulders at the lack of solutions.

What’s a city to do?

Well, here’s a suggestion: Offer gang-crime witnesses better protection from retaliation that keeps so many people silent out of fear.

When Chicago’s mayor — a rich man from the safe part of town — gets on TV and preaches to people living in violent poverty-stricken parts of town about the moral responsibility people have to speak out against criminals who execute our children, terrorize our neighborhoods and manipulate us with fear, doesn’t he owe them that much?

(The mayor’s City Hall spin machine had several days to answer that question but didn’t follow through.)

The Rev. Michael Pfleger, the activist priest at St. Sabina Catholic Church, knows people living in poor black neighborhoods have good reason to be afraid to testify against killers. He knows many people don’t trust police, prosecutors or politicians to protect them as witnesses.

After Tyshawn’s execution, Pfleger offered reward money as an incentive and his own home as sanctuary as he publicly begged witnesses to stand up and “not allow this murderer to walk around.”

“Come stay in my house until we relocate you, you can stay here, whatever it takes,” Pfleger said.

That’s not an option the Chicago Police Department offers the witnesses they need to catch more shooters.

Indeed, McCarthy, Chicago’s highest-ranking police official, has “no involvement in and no authority to change” witness protection, according to a McCarthy’s spokesman.

Only the Cook County State’s Attorney’s Office has a program that aims to protect witnesses who face real threats to their safety.

Since 2013, the Cook County State’s Attorney’s Office has spent about 80 percent of the program’s $180,000-a-year budget to relocate 115 witnesses who agreed to testify in shooting and murder cases despite facing the threat of gang retaliation for speaking out.

That amounts to about $3,756.52 of protection per cooperating witness.

The rest of the state’s attorney’s witness protection budget gets spent on things such as temporary hotel stays, transportation and baby-sitting services for cooperating witnesses, according to a state's attorney spokeswoman.

“We’re absolutely offering people the best we have with the limited resources we have. But one of the obstacles we do face is trying to convince people this is in their best interest,” said Fabio Valentini, chief of the state’s attorney’s criminal prosecutions bureau.

“I think people might have a misperception of the actual program we have. I know I did when I first encountered it many years ago. It certainly isn’t what people see on TV, people getting their identity changed or getting 24-hour, seven-days-a-week protection with armed guards. Essentially, in general, what we can offer people is relocation to a different area, for the most part in Cook County, though that doesn’t have to be the case.”

In general, this is how the current witness relocation program works:

Witnesses who qualify for relocation assistance are asked to find their own apartment. And prosecutors make sure the place is safe. They also check to make sure the witness isn’t a fraud, which occasionally is the case, before providing cash for movers, rent and other financial hardships that come with picking up your life, moving away and never coming back.

“I don’t want to give the impression our services offer nothing because I don’t think that’s the case,” Valentini said. “I can’t think of a situation where we relocated someone and they ended up in harm's way — unless they went back to the area they weren’t supposed to go to.”

A former FBI agent who asked not to be identified said if Chicago area law enforcement agencies were interested in federal assistance in providing gang witnesses better protection, generally all they have to do is ask for help.

While the federal witness protection program isn’t open to witnesses in local cases, there are some things — funding for programs or help offering witnesses the opportunity to change their identity, for instance — that the federal government might be able to help expedite, the former agent said.

I asked Valentini whether bolstering the county’s existing program and offering witnesses the opportunity to change their identities might help improve the pathetic rate that shooters and murderers get charged in Chicago.

“That’s a good question, and it’s certainly a great thought, and it’s something that would assist us in keeping people safe and helping solve crimes and starting the conversation about making sure we secure convictions when we’re trying to convict a killer or a violent criminal,” he said.

“Whether we can do it, I don’t know the answer to that question. I don’t know why we couldn’t [offer identity changes]. If they do it at the federal level, it seems like something we could do at the local level. But we certainly, right now, aren’t provided with the resources or the ability to do that."

Preckwinkle, a staunch critic of police tactics used in minority communities, said it’s oversimplifying the problem to suggest that more resources — and she’s talking about money — for witness protection will make a real difference in turning the tide on shootings in Chicago.

“That lets police and prosecutors off the hook, and I’m not going to,” she said.

Changing “the disproportionate way we police black and brown communities” — specifically so-called “broken window” and “stop-and-frisk” law enforcement strategies implemented by McCarthy — is what needs to happen to rebuild trust in local law enforcement, the County Board president told me.

Of course, Preckwinkle doesn’t have much of a say in tackling that problem. The Cook County Sheriff’s police department is a relatively small agency charged with patrolling unincorporated parts of the county.

But she can see the result of the current inequitable policing strategies in minority communities at Cook County jail, where 86 percent of the inmate population is minorities when the county’s population is only about half black and Hispanic, Preckwinkle said.

For that to change, the orders have to “come from the top … and focus on the victims and perpetrators of violent crime, and those are the same people by and large,” she said.

Of course, “the top” is a thinly veiled reference to Mayor Emanuel, who continues to back McCarthy despite the City Council black caucus’ demand that the mayor fire the police superintendent.

Whether or not you agree with Preckwinkle’s point of view, there’s no doubt the underlying politics involved in how to best deal with and pay for efforts to fix Chicago’s shooting problem — and who gets the credit or takes the blame — leaves that debate a stalemate.

So, maybe we should stop focusing on finding some unattainable, catch-all solution and ask ourselves if it’s in the best interest of our city to at least offer witnesses better protection from gang retaliation, if it might help rebuild a little of the lost trust that keeps people silent and ultimately lead to arrests and convictions that get more shooters off our streets.

After all these years of hearing the same old excuses about why they won’t stop shooting in Chicago — blame the gun lobby, the lawmakers, the lenient judges and people not living up to their moral responsibility — I figure that’s at least worth a healthy conversation.

So, I asked around.

“I can only offer an opinion, but in my opinion, the answer is yes,” Valentini said.

“If we had more resources consistent with what’s offered at the federal level, would it have an impact? I don’t think anyone could say, ‘No.’”

He was the only guy willing to go on the record.

Supt. McCarthy didn’t have anything to say.

Police spokesman Anthony Guglielmi explained why in an email response, “He said he’s going to stay in his lane, he knows nothing about witness protection.”

As for the guy at the top, Emanuel that is, well, the mayor and his City Hall spin machine have made it very clear he feels no moral responsibility to respond to questions that he doesn’t want to answer.

Ironic, don’t you think?

Getty Images/Scott Olson

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