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Wednesday, July 30, 2008

The Streets Talk

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Whenever a sensational violent crime occurs in a poor neighborhood, right-wing talk show hosts who have nothing but contempt for anyone living in desperate circumstances always rush in to shoot the wounded.

Their immediate attacks on poor people victimized by murder and violence go like this: The people living in these neighbor hoods allow such crimes to occur. Residents don’t cooperate with police out of a misguided “no snitch” culture that supports criminal behavior.

Horrific violence will continue until “those people” and their political leaders have the courage to stand up against crime and take back their streets.

Every one of those statements is exactly wrong. An early-morning shooting on July 4 in Milwaukee that killed four people is a perfect example of how little protection we actually provide for people in dangerous neighborhoods who report crimes.

And still they come forward, despite a shocking lack of concern by the criminal justice system for the safety of the citizens the police depend upon to help them clear crimes and make arrests.

Police officers themselves will tell you how dependent they are upon information from citizens. The son of a close friend was murdered last December. There were no witnesses and the young man’s body was left in the street.

Yet, when investigators met with the family, they expressed confidence that the perpetrators would be arrested. In no condition to accept false assurances, my friend asked how the officers could be so sure. The officers’ response was: “The streets talk.” In fact, within a day or so, at least one of the suspects was in custody. Soon, two others were implicated.

Lack of a Witness Protection Program

Milwaukee police clearance rates for homicides have always been extremely high. That would not be possible without information provided from residents who live in some of the city’s most dangerous neighborhoods. The strong citizen cooperation is all the more extraordinary because of an almost reckless disregard within Milwaukee’s criminal justice system for the safety of citizens who come forward.

Milwaukee County has no witness protection program. Several years ago, Milwaukee County Sheriff David Clarke eliminated the witness protection program that had operated within his department. The program had been supported with federal funds. When the Bush administration eliminated those funds, the sheriff did not consider witness protection a high enough priority to continue with local funds.

Former Municipal Judge Vince Bobot attempted to make the ending of witness protection into an issue when he ran against Clarke for sheriff two years ago, but it barely created a blip in the media. People who didn’t live in high-crime neighborhoods apparently didn’t care. To those who did live in those neighborhoods, it was just another example of the way their lives get discounted.

The July 4 shootings provided even more egregious examples. First, Milwaukee Police Chief Edward Flynn held a press conference in which he identified two of four victims shot to death in a crowded early-morning street party as gang members.

While families were still grieving over the violent deaths of their loved ones, the police chief was essentially saying two of the victims had brought the shootings upon themselves. No evidence was ever presented that the men were gang members. Family members said otherwise. The victims themselves, of course, were no longer around to defend themselves.

Once again, however, citizens came for ward to identify three suspects in the shoot ings. Soon one was in custody and two others had their names and pictures on bill boards around the city. Almost unbelievably, with two murder suspects still at large, the county with no witness protection program publicly named citizens who had identified the alleged perpetrators in the criminal complaint charging the suspects.

A criminal complaint is an open public record, available for anyone to read. When Milwaukee Journal Sentinel columnist Eugene Kane asked Assistant District Attorney Mark Williams why the names of witnesses were included in the public complaint, Williams’ response was: “This isn’t Russia.”

There is certainly a principle in our legal system that a defendant has a right to face his accusers. But it shows callous disregard for community safety to identify witnesses when suspects are still on the streets, especially when police claim gang involvement.

When criminal charges are brought against an individual, the state itself is the accuser. Which witnesses testify to support the state’s accusations depend on many fac tors including credibility and the willingness of citizens to participate after being fully informed of possible risks.

Citizen tips can be used to locate perpetrators who then turn out to be the most damning witnesses against themselves and their compatriots. “No snitch” is a myth among those guys, too. Citizens keep coming forward to try to make their neighborhoods safer. What they get for their troubles is name-calling from right-wing radio and total disregard for their personal safety from community leaders.

Write: editor@shepex.com or comment on this story online at www.expressmilwaukee.com.