We don’t pretend to have the answers when it comes to protecting witnesses brave enough to step forward and testify against criminals. But there has to be a better system than the current one.
News staff reporter Lou Michel wrote recently about the awful circumstances for members of an East Side family who believe they were targeted Oct. 31 by a gunman trying to head off possible testimony against a drive-by shooter. And although there is no proof of motive, the theory seems plausible.
Tara Hall is now paralyzed from the waist down. Her daughter, Yasmine, considered and then changed her mind about identifying to authorities the gunman in a drive-by shooting outside a neighborhood store in May.
The Hall family blames the Erie County District Attorney’s Office for failing to heed its request for protection after the alleged drive-by shooter began making death threats. The district attorney said the request was never made. Either way, the effect of the shooting at the Hall apartment certainly was to dampen any resolve others might have to step forward.
There have been other incidents, some resulting in deaths of eyewitnesses who had either testified or indicated they were willing to testify in crime investigations. In a highly publicized case in August 2009, a 19-year-old Derby woman testified in a murder investigation and hours later she and a companion were fatally shot on Hirschbeck Street. Jamie Norton’s family has said she was killed for her cooperation. No arrests have been made.
The irony in this is that the District Attorney’s Office has a witness protection program and has, at times, offered to help witnesses, including with relocations. The Buffalo Police Department regularly investigates threats against witnesses and has made arrests for such threats.
But it may take more. Perhaps federal or state assistance or funding can make it safer for witnesses to testify.
Police cannot create safe streets without community cooperation. If law enforcement is to successfully fight violent crime in the city, the cooperation of residents is essential. But if witnesses are afraid for their safety, they will be scared into silence.
Unfortunately, police cars cannot park in front of the house of every witness. But there can be discussions about making people feel it is safe to come forward. It’s a conversation that law enforcement and the public should have with each other.