Thursday, July 05, 2007

Dallas DA: Snitch and We'll Protect You

The Texas Observer blog rounds up some of the remarkably good press Dallas County DA has received for his actions just in the last month:
– He launched a public campaign to promote witness cooperation by emphasizing the importance of protection, as part of a larger attempt to build community trust. “If we prove to this new generation that we are here to support them[,] to help them[,] we’re on their side[,] hopefully we can change that mentality and get them on board with law enforcement,” Watkins told Dallas TV station WFAA.

– At a Juneteenth event, Watkins declared he hopes to create a statewide legacy. He again stressed his desire to get to the root causes of crimes rather than relying simply on incarceration.

– He promoted a case in which DNA testing affirmed the guilt of a prisoner. “The recent DNA results in the [Henry] Culberson case further emphasize that post-conviction DNA testing not only frees the wrongfully convicted periodically, but equally important, it reaffirms guilt of violent crimes in many cases,” he said in a statement.

– He introduced double-blind line-ups as standard procedure, in which photos of suspects are shown one by one to witnesses for ID, and the officer doing the presentation does not know who the suspect is. Faulty eyewitness ID procedures are at the heart of many wrongful convictions, Henson notes, calling the reform “another milestone.”

– And he won a funding battle with county commissioners to get an Innocence Project lawyer hired as DNA evidence manager for the county.

Most of these topics I've discussed before on Grits, but I wanted to point in particular to the initiative on witness cooperation and protection. Like many prosecutors, Watkins is concerned about the effect of the "stop snitching" meme being promoted in hip hop and pop culture. So he went to the source ("District Attorney Promotes Snitching Culture," WFAA-TV, June 23):

Dallas gang prosecutor, Heath Harris, says that attitude is so ingrained, T-shirts can be found promoting it.

"This is just a different form of intimidation to keep people from cooperating with the authorities," he said.

So Harris, and his boss, District Attorney Craig Watkins, went on hip hop radio promising to protect people who come forward to help.

"If we prove to this new generation that we are here to support them to help them were on their side hopefully we can change that mentality and get them on board with law enforcement," Watkins said.

That sort of media outreach may be the only way in the long-term to counter the "don't snitch" message, particularly in poor, disempowered neighborhoods - actually convince the public they'll be protected if they come forward. While some jurisdictions tried to ban t-shirts or emblems with the "stop snitching" slogan, I thought Colorado came up with a more constructive approach, passing a law to enhance witness protection in response to murder of two witnesses. Reported the Rocky Mountain News (June 21, 2006):

The law - which goes into effect in July - renames the state's witness protection program after Marshall Fields and [Vivian] Wolfe, who were both 22 when they were shot to death. It requires district attorney offices and law enforcement agencies across the state to provide education and risk assessment on witness protection to prosecutors, victim advocates and law enforcement officers.

Officials are then required to offer witness protection - which includes relocation assistance - to those whose lives could be at risk for their involvement in a case.

To the extent, as Harris says, the "stop snitching" meme is merely a function of witness intimidation, the best way law enforcement can solve the problem is commit significant resources to witness protection. Of course, there are other problems with how police use snitches that can't be solved through witness protection. But for real cases of witness intimidation, Watkins is taking the right approach: Convince the public you'll protect witnesses who come forward. Then back it up.

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