Christopher Roundtree’s murderer may get away because people won’t speak up. The shooter gunned down the 29-year-old earlier this month in Chicago’s South Side Englewood neighborhood.
In another murder, two years ago, 17-year-old Robert Tate refused reveal the name of his shooter to police, taking that secret to the grave.
Both cases are the result of Chicago’s street policy known as “snitches get stitches,” a catch phrase that warns against providing information to police.
“There is a conspiracy of silence,” said state Rep. André M. Thapedi (D-Chicago), whose district includes Englewood.
These cases speak to the “no snitch” culture that has been brewing in Chicago.
Both Chicago Mayors Rahm Emanuel and Richard M. Daley have supported anti-snitching campaigns, but nothing has broken through as homicide rates continue to rise.
Chicago had more than 500 deaths last year, and has had over 40 deaths since January 2013, the highest number for January deaths in over a decade, according to Chicago Police data. Many remain unsolved due to uncooperative witnesses.
A new bill may be able to help ease the no snitching street policy. The Gang Crime Witness Protection Act of 2013 would establish a statewide protection program to encourage victims and witnesses to speak out and help prosecute gang members.
State Rep. Emanuel Welch (D-Hillside), the chief sponsor of the proposed act, said it is a direct response to the “no snitching” culture that has plagued Chicago for years.
The Gang Crime Witness Protection Act would be similar to the Federal Witness Protection program. It allows victims and witnesses to apply to be relocated in order to avoid potential repercussions of testifying against gang members. Unlike the federal program, witnesses would not be able to assume a new identity.
“The terror that people have of retaliation has been such a stunning impediment to justice,” said Jennifer Bishop Jenkins, executive director of ILvictims.org.
State Rep. Rita Mayfield (D-Waukegan), a co-sponsor of the bill, said the program costs would come from fees set by the court system but did not have an estimate of how expensive the program would be when implemented.
Funds for relocation would be provided by the Crime Witness Protection fund, established in 1996.
Back in 1996, the state used this model as a two-year pilot program but never returned to the concept. Many prosecutors and attorneys were unaware of the program during that time, according to an Illinois Criminal Justice Information Authority report.
Mayfield said the 2013 version would not have the same problems.
“If they [victims and witnesses] don’t know they have rights, how can they utilize them?” said Mayfield.
Mayfield said that the bill will be a collaborative effort and that there are current negotiations with the Cook County state’s attorney to improve it.
If passed by both the Illinois House of Representatives and Illinois Senate, the state would join 17 other states that have witness protection laws, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.
The bill is waiting to be heard by the state House Judiciary Committee.
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