Sunday, October 5, 2003

Officials seek plan to protect witnesses

By Sharon Coolidge
The Cincinnati Enquirer

Hamilton County wants more reluctant witnesses and victims to speak up when crime happens and show up in court.

By next spring, officials say they may be able to help people who are being scared into silence to move from one neighborhood to another. It won't be a true version of the federal witness protection program - new identities won't be granted - but the local plan could help people escape intimidating situations.

Hamilton County Prosecutor Mike Allen, County Commissioner Phil Heimlich and community activist and Cincinnati City Council candidate Tom Jones all are behind such a program and are working out details.

"It's not going to be an inexpensive program, it's not cure-all, but it's something that would help," Allen says.

Hamilton County supporters are looking at programs in Seattle, New York, Baltimore and Los Angeles that could serve as models.

Baltimore, which is about the same size as Cincinnati and has similar crime issues, has had a witness assistance program for seven years. The program, paid for by the mayor's office and the prosecutor's office, offers temporary relocation and help with food expenses. Baltimore helps about 22 witnesses at a cost of roughly $20,000 per month, program coordinators say.

At least 13 states - including Kentucky and Pennsylvania - also offer some form of help for witnesses who cooperate with authorities, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. Ohio does not have such a program.

Kentucky enacted a victim and witness protection program four years ago, spending $80,407 since then to pay for it. Any agency hoping to place someone in the program must apply. A council of commonwealth attorneys, county attorneys and citizens must approve all placements, according to the Kentucky Attorney General's Office.

Heimlich explains that a witness assistance program could include putting a fearful witness up in a hotel, or moving somebody from the east side to the west side of the city.

"I don't think we need to give somebody a new identity or send them across the country," Heimlich says. "They're not running from the Mafia, what they're facing is pretty simple and crude. Somebody in their neighborhood is threatening them. Getting them an apartment across town, even temporarily, is sufficient."

The Cincinnati Police Department already helps witnesses and victims on a small scale, says Cincinnati Police Capt. Vince Demasi, commander of the criminal investigations section.

"We do a pretty good job of protecting witnesses, to the extent that it's possible," the captain says.

Instead, the police department puts people in hotels or works with landlords and metropolitan housing officials to relocate a person.

"Asking people to move is a significant request," Demasi says. "People don't want to do that."


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