County-based wit­ness pro­tec­tion pro­gram will help solve vi­o­lent crimes, vic­tims’ fam­i­lies say

Chicago Sun-Times - - TOP NEWS - BY MATTHEW HEN­DRICK­SON, STAFF REPORTER mhen­drick­son@suntimes.com @MHen­drick­sonCST

A group of South and West side min­is­ters hand-de­liv­ered a let­ter to the Cook County state’s at­tor­ney’s of­fice Tues­day ask­ing for the cre­ation of a new pro­gram to bet­ter pro­tect wit­nesses of vi­o­lent crimes.

The faith lead­ers were joined by the fam­i­lies of sev­eral mur­der vic­tims who said a be­lief that au­thor­i­ties can’t or won’t pro­tect peo­ple who come for­ward with in­for­ma­tion keeps their loved ones’ cases from be­ing solved.

“There are peo­ple who know who killed my son, and they will not come for­ward be­cause they don’t feel pro­tected,” said Sharita Gal­loway, the mother of 16-year-old Eli­jah Sims, whose 2016 shoot­ing death in Austin re­mains un­solved.

The group pointed to a vi­cious cy­cle: If com­mu­nity mem­bers don’t feel safe talk­ing to au­thor­i­ties, de­tec­tives can’t solve cases, al­low­ing the killers to be­lieve they won’t face jus­tice, in­evitably lead­ing to more shoot­ings.

“If you catch one killer, you prob­a­bly save 10 lives,” Gal­loway said.

The Rev. Ira Acree, of Greater St. John Bi­ble Church in Austin, called the Chicago Po­lice Depart­ment’s 21% homi­cide clear­ance rate last year “hor­rific” and said it em­bold­ens crim­i­nals.

“They know there is an 80% chance that they will not be ap­pre­hended and con­victed,” Acree said. “Peo­ple are afraid. They feel like gov­ern­ment will aban­don them or they know of peo­ple the gov­ern­ment has aban­doned.”

As­sis­tance for vic­tims and wit­nesses is pro­vided by the state’s at­tor­ney’s of­fice’s Vic­tim Wit­ness As­sis­tance Unit, which is one of the largest such ad­vo­cacy or­ga­ni­za­tions in the county.

“Ev­ery day, our ded­i­cated Vic­tim Wit­ness Unit is on the front lines, work­ing di­rectly with those most af­fected by vi­o­lence as they nav­i­gate the court sys­tem on their path to seek­ing jus­tice,” State’s At­tor­ney Kim Foxx said in a state­ment. “The safety of those who have been in­vol­un­tar­ily en­gaged in the crim­i­nal jus­tice sys­tem is paramount to the work of our of­fice.”

Acree called the unit “an abysmal fail­ure that needs to be trashed” as he stood out­side the county’s ad­min­is­tra­tive of­fice build­ing, at 69 W. Wash­ing­ton St. He said the county needs a new wit­ness pro­tec­tion pro­gram “that cit­i­zens and res­i­dents can be­lieve in.”

“Peo­ple al­ways speak about our com­mu­ni­ties on the South Side and West Side, say­ing we should speak up, you know, we should have a con­science,” Acree said. “It’s not about break­ing the code of si­lence. Our chal­lenge to­day is to break a cul­ture of fear.”

The Vic­tim Wit­ness Unit is funded by al­lo­ca­tions in the an­nual county bud­get and state and fed­eral grants, Foxx said in her state­ment.

“These re­sources al­low us to of­fer lim­ited re­lo­ca­tion as­sis­tance on a case-by-case ba­sis, the top prose­cu­tor said.

“How­ever, the crim­i­nal jus­tice sys­tem can­not be the only re­source for vic­tims. Col­lab­o­ra­tion with ad­vo­cates, com­mu­nity-based or­ga­ni­za­tions, gov­ern­ment and other law en­force­ment agen­cies is crit­i­cal to pro­vide the most com­pre­hen­sive sys­tem of ser­vices to vic­tims and wit­nesses.”

While fund­ing may be a hur­dle for the county, Acree warned “you pay one way or the other.”

“I say to the Cook County Board pres­i­dent [Toni Preck­win­kle], find the money,” Acree said. “When you pay on the back end, it’s just too ex­pen­sive, be­cause you’re talk­ing about lives.”

ASHLEE REZIN GAR­CIA/SUN-TIMES PHO­TOS

Sharita Gal­loway, whose 16-year-old son Eli­jah Sims was shot to death in 2016, says, “There are peo­ple who know who killed my son, and they will not come for­ward be­cause they don’t feel pro­tected.”

The Rev. Ira Acree says crim­i­nals know “there is an 80% chance that they will not be ap­pre­hended and con­victed.”

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