Sgt. Lavonnie Bickerstaff explained the success Pittsburgh Police have had with its witness protection program.
She gave a presentation about the program to the Zone 3 Public Safety Council during the organization's last monthly meeting on September 20 at the Banksville Park shelter.
Ms. Bickerstaff said during the years that she has been involved in the program, not one witness has been harmed by retaliation if the witness has followed the rules they must abide by in the program. The basic mission of the program is to protect people who testify as material witnesses in murder, rape and serious assault cases.
Every case is handled in an individualized manner and confidentially of every witness is protected.
The sergeant dispelled the myth that people are kept in “safe houses” during their testimony or that the witnesses are given different identities and shipped across the country for the rest of their lives.
The police do arrange certain basic expenses for a witness to temporarily leave the “threat area” where they live while the perpetrator is tried and convicted.
Ms. Bickerstaff said that people need to step up if they witness a crime because they are the “community crusaders” of the neighborhood who have a positive effect against crime.
She said if a person feels uncomfortable going directly to the police in a formal manner to say they witnessed a violent crime, then that person should informally contact a friend or relative who may be a police officer where other, confidential arrangements can set up.
In addition to moving away from the “threat area”, witnesses must not being using illegal drugs and they must not been interacting with known criminals and taking part in that “life style”.
According to a message from county district attorney Stephen A. Zappala, Jr., “Witnessing a crime can be a frightening and life-changing experience. When someone has the courage to come forward and assist in a criminal investigation, our community becomes a better place. The members of law enforcement extend our deepest gratitude to those individuals who come forward in times of need.”
Ms. Bickerstaff gave a power-point, slide presentation about what the witness protection program is all about. She also showed a brief segment from a cable television show called “Final Justice' in which a local billboard campaign has helped find witnesses to violent crimes.
The television program out-lined a case where an eight-year-old girl was one of three people murdered during a drive-by shooting at a sandwich shop in Homewood. Through the billboard campaign, two of the three assailants from this crime were apprehended and eventually convicted.
Having large billboards which showed the faces of the victims at busy intersections near the crime helped motivate someone to come forward.
Commander RaShall Brackney was also at the meeting and she noted that it is unlikely that any one who attends the Safety Committee meetings will ever be a victim or a witness to violent crime in their neighborhood.
However, she said the witness protection program points out the fact that by cooperating with police, even over much smaller nuisance crimes, the threat of retaliation is not as bad as the perception.