Can I get a witness?
Washington, D.C., Police Chief Larry Soulsby has reassigned 21 detectives from a variety of police units to help in the homicide division, where witnesses’ fear of retaliation, being labeled a “snitch,” or just a general distrust of police is making it increasingly difficult for police to persuade them to identify offenders.
As of Sept. 23, there have been 301 homicides in the district this year, compared with 268 for the same period in 1995. District police solved fewer than half of the 378 homicides in 1995. At certain points this year, the closure rate for homicides has dipped as low as 28 percent.
“It’s very difficult to shake [witnesses] and try to get the truth out of the them,” said Gilberto De Jesus, the assistant U.S. attorney who is handling a case that authorities point to as a perfect example of witness non-cooperation.
Police had thought the Aug. 27, 1995, murders of Anthony Watts Jr., 19, and Danney Duane Brown, 18, were solved when they arrested a suspect two weeks after the youths were gunned down in a Northwest Washington alley.
But today, no suspect is in custody. The man initially charged in the case was released when the case fell apart before the man was indicted. While prosecutors are still working on it, they said, there is no timetable offered for any further action.
The gunman, said police, walked past five people after he fired 18 shots at Watts and Brown in the middle of the afternoon. Several dozen others were milling around or cooking out, they said, in the same alley as the shooting. Two more people, said authorities, saw the shooting from an overlooking apartment.
While the two in the apartment initially picked a suspect out of a group of photos, they later recanted, saying they had misunderstood police.
None of the people close to where the shooting took place cooperated with police. Those who saw the shooting said they could not identify the gunman, and others who admitted to being at the scene have told police nothing.
“It sends a message that these guys who commit these murders can operate with impunity,” said homicide detective Tony Patterson, a 22-year veteran. “When people start shooting you at 3 P.M. in the afternoon and walk, not run, away from the scene, they just don’t care.”
While police and prosecutors say they have strong leads in the majority of homicides in the city, they cannot gain a conviction without at least one witness willing to testify in court.
Some sensational cases spark such community outrage that people immediately help police, said the homicide division commander, Capt. Alan Dreher. One such case involved the bludgeoning of two girls, ages 7 and 9. Their stepfather has been charged in their deaths.
“But in a lot of cases, the witnesses are afraid of the perpetrators in fear of their life and are reluctant to give information,” said Dreher.