New Jersey detectives are being urged to build criminal cases with as few witnesses as possible, sometimes none, says the New York Times. In cities struggling with gang-related crimes, detectives said that even on the infrequent occasions when they find civilian witnesses who might be willing to testify, investigators are wary about pressuring them to appear in court. That reluctance is based on a fear that the authorities might not be able to protect them from retaliation.
The New Jersey State Police gang unit has made hundreds of cases during the past five years, but used civilian testimony fewer than a dozen times. Deciding whether to pressure a witness to testify has always been one of the most precarious parts of detective work. As murders have climbed across the state – and with more than a dozen witnesses having been killed in the last five years – building witnessless cases is seen as necessary. Cases are being made using video surveillance, sting operations, or police testimony. The cases that can be made without witnesses – often drug sales or gun possession cases – tend to carry shorter sentences than the more serious crimes that the authorities would most like to prosecute: murder, kidnapping and assault. Critics said that by resorting to methods that allow gang members to reduce, or avoid, punishment for their crimes, the police are essentially rewarding them.