D.A. urges ‘empowerment’ for crime witnesses

Hoping to encourage more residents of violence-plagued neighborhoods to come forward when they’ve witnessed a crime, District Attorney Kamala Harris said Friday that a first step is to reverse community resistance to “snitching.”

Speaking at the end of a two-hour meeting that brought together about 60 top representatives from law enforcement and city agencies, community organizations and local faith leaders, Harris made no mention of the killing last month of murder witness Terrell Rollins, 22, who was enrolled in the district attorney’s witness protection program.

She said it was up to the community to provide “witness empowerment” so that individuals who witness a crime would not fear retribution if they came forward to testify.

“It’s not only about witnesses being afraid for their safety, it’s also to a great degree not wanting to be stigmatized as a snitch,” said Harris.

One of the plans that surfaced during the meeting was to have members of the Omega Boys Club, a San Francisco-based program that has a goal of keeping its young participants in school and away from violence, speak to church congregations about how to encourage youth to come forward as witnesses.

Boys Club member Ameer Tate, 20, said he hoped to impart a message to his community that the violence won’t stop until people are willing to speak to law enforcement about a crime they’ve witnessed.

“In the neighborhoods we live in, drive-bys happen and people get shot all the time, often innocent bystanders,” Tate said. “If we don't step up and stop this thing, our lives will continue to be in danger.”

After the meeting, Tate said some people in his Potrero Hill neighborhood have told him that they don't trust the police enough to come to them with details of a crime.

“People step forward and witnesses are actually treated like criminals in some cases,” Tate said.

Dawn Edwards, director for San Francisco Police Watch, a law enforcement accountability organization, said that in high-crime neighborhoods “there exists an attitude of ‘us against them’ on both sides” that the police and other city officials need to work on repairing before they can expect citizens to come forward to report crimes.

One step would be for the community to see that police officers that step out of line are also held accountable, she said.

beslinger@examiner.com

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