Long before Philadelphians were terrified into silence over the killing of 10-year-old Faheem Thomas-Childs, police cited gaps in the city’s witness-relocation program and proposed an expansion, reports the Philadelphia Inquirer. The Feb. 11 shooting in an exchange of gunfire between suspected rival gangs in North Philadelphia has produced no witness willing to publicly finger the gunmen, even though many people apparently saw the shoot-out. The Philadelphia police commissioner and District Attorney’s Office said they doubted any witness-relocation expansion would help in this case.
Police officials were concerned enough about the city’s program last year that they cited a “dangerous gap that needs to be bridged” in the availability of confidential security services for jittery witnesses. A police document provided to the Inquirer said that the department suggested doubling the number of temporary witness relocations possible under the program. It put the additional yearly cost at $160,000, not including staff time. If the changes were made, the document said, “more arrests could be made, more cases could be solved, more guilty verdicts could be obtained, and more dangerous criminals could be taken off the streets.”
Each year the District Attorney files witness-intimidation or -retaliation charges against dozens of people, but that number is considered a small fraction of the total. Relocation of witnesses to new neighborhoods or towns is a tactic used increasingly by local authorities to try to combat the problem. Less costly than the federal program, local efforts usually are limited to temporary relocation, food, and job-search assistance. It typically does not include a new identity, such as that offered under the federal program.
The Philadelphia program, run by the District Attorney’s Office, relocates about 40 witnesses a year. Thousands have been moved in and around the city since 1993, and not a single person who has obeyed program rules has been hurt. Under the police proposal last year, the annual figures could be raised to about 80 witnesses if police were allowed to carry out their own relocations.