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Witness Protection Summit

San Francisco leaders move
to rein in witness intimidation

Saint Mary's Cathedral hosted a Witness Protection Summit on Friday. City officials and community leaders convened to address witness protection intimidation.
Photo(s) by Luke Thomas

By Daniel Powell

June 18, 2006

District Attorney Kamala Harris announced a new strategy to combat what she says is a growing problem for law enforcement: reluctance on the part of witnesses to "snitch" due to fears of violent retaliation, and ostracism from their communities.

San Francisco District Attorney Kamala Harris

The announcement came after a Friday afternoon summit convened by Harris in response to last month's slaying of Terrell Rollins, 22, a murder witness in the district attorney's witness protection program.

Approximately 50 representatives from city government, faith and community organizations and law enforcement discussed a community-based approach to overcoming the stigma of "snitching" and fostering a sense of "witness empowerment" in crime-ridden neighborhoods.

A T-Shirt aimed at intimidating witnesses
displayed by the District Attorney last month
at Ella Hill Hutch Community Center.

"There is more that all of us can do," Harris said after the meeting. "The only way that we get to a point of solving a problem is first admitting there's a problem, and then figuring out what our role is in fixing the problem."

During the closed to media meeting, San Francisco Police Commissioner Joe Marshall detailed plans to send members of the Omega Boys Club to speak to local church congregations. The club, which offers educational support and gang prevention programs for at-risk youth, was co-founded by Marshall in 1987.

San Francisco Police Commissioner Dr. Joe Marshall

Club members Walter Simon and Ameer Tate spoke bluntly after the meeting about the need for citizens to take responsibility for crime in their neighborhoods by cooperating with law enforcement.

"It's going to take the whole community to realize that until we make it clear - that if we're not going to stand for anything happening in our neighborhoods - that crime is going to continue," Tate said.

Ameer Tate, left, with fellow Omega Boys Club member Walter Simon.

"It could be fatal," Simon said "But if we're not willing to die for something we believe in, than what good are our lives?"

Walter Simon joins effort to stem fear of reporting violence to authorities. Standing with Simon, from left, are Gary Flowers, director of policy for Rainbow Push; Allen Nance, director of the Mayor's Office of Criminal Justice; Sheriff Chief Deputy A. Waters, and Rev. Toni Dunbar, Chaplain, San Francisco Juvenile Probation Department.

A former gang member, Simon lost the use of his legs when he was shot eight times at the corner of Fillmore and Webster streets 13 years ago. Since joining the Omega Boys Club, he has enrolled at Contra Costa College and has worked to clarify the difference between "snitching," where a criminal gives someone up to save his own skin, and "telling."

"Telling is a responsible citizen coming forth with evidence of a crime that has been committed," he said.

District Attorney Harris didn't go into specific detail about changes to her office's witness protection program other than to say she was waiting for a vote from the Board of Supervisors to approve funds for the hiring of seven new investigators.

She also stressed that the meeting was just the first step in making citizens feel safer about coming forth as witnesses. "We have a lot of problems that need to be fixed, we have limited resources, but in any event, we have to start somewhere." she said.

"It wasn't groundbreaking, but we broke the ice. We got some communication going," Simon said. "It's going to be a tough sell because we have it ingrained in our cerebral cortex, 'don't snitch or you'll get that jacket.'"




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