GRESHAM — Activists are calling on local leaders to better protect witnesses if they’re serious about ending violence in Chicago.
Their calls have gained renewed urgency after a mass shooting last week at a funeral wounded 15 people. No one has been charged, and community leaders must now turn to police to bring justice to the victims. Officials, including Mayor Lori Lightfoot, have urged neighbors to speak out if they know anything about the violence.
That exposes a longstanding problem, activists said: It needs to be safer for witnesses to cooperate with police.
“They want the community to call into the tip hotline, they want the community to work with them and they want the community to help them through the crisis of all this gun violence,” said Joseph Williams, an anti-violence activist who founded the Mr. Dad’s Fathers Club. “But when the community steps up and tries to help, they aren’t listening to the community.”
Williams has worked with grieving parents like Marlo Kelly — whose daughter was slain in September after testifying in a murder case — to prevent violence.
Williams said he’s reached out to the Mayor’s Office to request a meeting in light of the Gresham shooting. The attack in Gresham proves it’s long past time city leaders got on board with the kinds of community safety interventions anti-violence activists have pushed for years, he said.
Chief among those needed reforms is reallocating part of the police budget to protect witnesses, who risk their safety to help police investigate crimes, activists have said.
Cook County does have a program to protect witnesses, but it doesn’t have the funding it’d need to relocate witnesses longterm or for other services, State’s Attorney Kim Foxx told the Tribune in the fall. The office uses a portion of its own budget to move 50 to 100 families annually, but Foxx said she’d like resources to do more.
Tamar Manasseh, the founder of Motherless Against Senseless Killings, said more needs to be done to prevent crime and protect people.
Last week, Manasseh warned police there could be retaliatory violence at the funeral. Now, she said she can’t help but feel she and the volunteers who stand watch in Englewood to prevent violence are “sitting ducks.”
Community activist Ja’Mal Green said the shooting shows the bulk of the Police Department’s budget should be redirected to resources for preventing city violence.
“It just shows that even when they’re there, they still can’t prevent crime,” Green said.
Green echoed Williams’ call for a funded witness protection program and said the city needs to invest in mental health facilities, community centers and other tools that could help prevent or interrupt the cycle of retaliation.
But the calls for change are coming from all avenues: Families torn apart by gun violence are asking for witnesses to be protected, and even politicians are demanding protection programs be better funded.
At a Tuesday morning press conference, religious leaders and the families of murder victims joined together to call on the Cook County State’s Attorney Office to create a stronger witness protection program. They said neighbors do want to talk to police and help them with investigations, but they don’t feel safe.
And State Rep. Chris Welch, a Democrat who represents several western suburbs, is struggling to get funding for the witness protection bill he passed seven years and two governors ago. The bill is meant to protect and, when needed, relocate witnesses.
“Gov. Quinn was in office at that time and signed it into law with big fanfare,” Welch said. “When Rauner took office, we ran into an unprecedented budget crisis, a several-hundred-and 36-day budget impasse where nothing was getting funded.”
For Welch, sponsoring the bill was personal; his aunt was gunned down in front of a church 35 years ago, and her murder remains unsolved. He echoed Manasseh, Williams and Green: People have to feel safe enough to speak up.
“People are afraid to to tell because they’re afraid of retaliation against their families. We need to make this a priority,” Welch said.
The $10 million Welch is requesting to protect witnesses would be pulled from the Cannabis Regulation Fund. Welch hopes to get the bill funded during the next veto session. If unsuccessful, he’ll refile in January.
Foxx reached out to offer her support for the initiative, saying she would like to institute something similar, Welch said.
In a Tuesday press release, Foxx said said the State’s Attorney Office has a Victim Witness Unit that works directly with people affected by violence, and it’s funded by the county as well as state and federal grants.
“These resources allow us to offer limited relocation assistance on a case by case basis,” Foxx said, according to the press release. “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.
“The safety of those who have been involuntarily engaged in the criminal justice system is paramount to the work of our office. I look forward to working closely with city and county officials to increase essential protections for everyone in Cook County.”
Asked about witness protection last week, Lightfoot said it remains a “priority.” She said police already have received tips about the Gresham shooting from residents who are “fed up.”
“The protection of witnesses, the protection of victims has been a priority in this country, this city, for years. That doesn’t change,” Lightfoot said. “What we need to do is make sure we give no shelter, no shelter, to the people who are killers.”
But activists have said they want action — not words.
“The city has to step up,” Green said. “I don’t know how many more people have to die before they understand how important it is.”
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