Chicago Wants Witnesses To Step Up, But City Offers Little Support

witnesses art
Advocates say it’s difficult for witnesses to step forward if they don’t trust they will be safe. Photo illustration by Libby Berry, WBEZ/Photo by Matt Rourke, AP
witnesses art
Advocates say it’s difficult for witnesses to step forward if they don’t trust they will be safe. Photo illustration by Libby Berry, WBEZ/Photo by Matt Rourke, AP

Chicago Wants Witnesses To Step Up, But City Offers Little Support

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Eddie Bocanegra has worked in gun violence prevention in Chicago for a long time, so it wasn’t surprising when someone from the office of Chicago Police Superintendent Eddie Johnson recently reached out to talk. The thing that surprised Bocanegra was their request.

They said they needed Bocanegra’s help getting someone out of a neighborhood because his life was in danger. The Police Department member didn’t tell him much but Bocanegra got the clear impression the person was in danger because they, or someone in their family, were a witness.

“Think about that for a minute. I have somebody who was with law enforcement calling me letting me know, you know, do you have any resources?” Bocanegra said.

The Chicago Police Department has a budget of about $1.7 billion per year. Bocanegra works for a nonprofit, READI Chicago, an organization that works with the people who are most likely to be victims or perpetrators of gun violence.

“To me what … him reaching out illustrates … is that, at the city level, at the Chicago Police Department level, we don’t have resources to support individuals who are in danger of their lives.”

The city of Chicago has a dismal rate of solving murders, clearing only about 4 in 10, and Chicago officials, including the superintendent of police, have said for years that one of the biggest barriers to solving crimes is that witnesses won’t step forward. But Bocanegra said it’s difficult for witnesses to step forward if they don’t trust they will be safe.

Bocanegra remembers an instance a few years ago when he was working at the YMCA and a kid there told him he had witnessed a shooting and he thought police may be looking for him. Bocanegra connected him with a lawyer and arranged a meeting with police. Bocanegra said it started off well, “and then a couple days later, the mom and the kid come to me, it’s like, ‘Hey, you know, we don’t feel safe here,’” Bocanegra said.

The mother thought that the shooter had likely seen her child and might seek to harm him. Bocanegra says he reached out to see what the city could do to help, but there wasn’t much they could offer, so the family handled it themselves and sent the child to temporarily live with relatives in Florida.

These kinds of stories are leading some advocates to call on the city of Chicago to step up and play a bigger role in supporting witnesses.

Challenges with relocation

One of the things most people think about when they hear witness protection is relocation. Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot told the Chicago Sun Times that she doesn’t want to create a program to relocate witnesses because it sends a message that the city isn’t invested in making every neighborhood safe and instead just moves people around.

Lori Smith directs Cook County’s victim and witness support program, and she agrees that relocation isn’t a perfect solution by itself. Her office offers victims and witnesses a range of services, like sitting with people in court and connecting them to mental health services. But relocating people is actually rare. She said the state’s attorney only does it 50 to 60 times a year. Smith said part of the reason is that it’s expensive, but a more fundamental reason is that many witnesses don’t want to be moved.

“A lot of folks have lived in their neighborhoods [for] decades … Their friends are there, their churches are there,” said Smith. “And a whole network of support is there … And it is really hard … to be told: You can’t go back there because it’s dangerous for you.”

Smith remembers one man her office helped relocate who decided to go back to his neighborhood for a funeral and was murdered.

“And in talking to their loved one, who was completely distraught, she kept saying ‘I kept telling him not to go back, I kept telling him not to go back,’ … but he wanted to say goodbye to his friend,” Smith said.

Advocates call for more services

Ja’Mal Green, one of the activists pushing for more robust witness services, says he is all for making all neighborhoods safe as the end goal, but that’s no reason not to provide a robust witness relocation program in the meantime.

“Essentially until we get into a position where we can protect people where they are … this is what we have to deal with short-term,” Green said.

He argues the city could play a bigger role by collaborating with the county to provide more resources and coordination. A city program might also be able to reach more witnesses since some cases never reach county prosecutors, or when they do it’s long after the witness has spoken with police.

There are cities offering more robust services than are available in Chicago. For example, a program in Cincinnati aims to connect witnesses with social workers as soon as the police talk to them so that they can get mental health services. Cinicinnati also provides witnesses who are worried about their safety with buttons that, when pressed, immediately summon police.

But of course, whether it’s the city, county or state running a program, the issue of what can be provided comes down to funding. In 2013, Illinois passed a bill called the Gang Crime Witness Protection Act to provide money to counties for witness protection. The bill passed, but 6 years later, it has yet to be funded. The bill was sponsored by State Rep. Chris Welch, D-Hillside.

“It’s definitely something I’d like to [re]visit personally and something that I’ll be pushing in the very near future, and hopefully, we can get it funded,” Welch said.

Shannon Heffernan is a WBEZ criminal justice reporter. Follow her at @shannon_h.