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