Ken Garcia: Finding murder witnesses just got harder in San Francisco

It’s heartening to see that San Francisco District Attorney Kamala Harris is throwing every available body she can find into her office’s witness protection program, now that a young man under her agency’s charge was shot to death recently.

But doubling the number of investigators in the program may not be the wisest choice, given that the odds someone would voluntarily let her office “protect’’ them have probably gone from small to infinitesimal.

Unless I missed something in reading all the accounts about Terrell Rollins’ murder, the protection the 22-year-old witness received was about as rigid as cardboard — given that the young man was coming to The City so often it was like he never left. And that’s not supposed to happen in the area of witness protection — where the first rule of order is to move the person far enough away that even if they were tempted to return to the scene of the crime they couldn’t easily do so, and their guardians would know about it if they did.

Harris, who went into full press conference mode following the tragic blunder, as she is wont to do, insisted that Rollins had been relocated “far, far away’’ from San Francisco. Far to her must mean anything beyond walking distance, because two sources who spoke on the condition of anonymity told me that Rollins was relocated to northern San Mateo County — which is why he was able to return to The City so easily and so often.

Now I may not be highly trained like people involved in witness protection programs reportedly are, but I know enough to say that if I wanted to safeguard the only witness in a critical homicide case, I would probably move him more than 15 minutes by car from the area where they saw a gang slaying. (Harris on Monday told me she couldn’t discuss where Rollins was placed because “we need to keep a tight rein on that in order to ensure our witnesses safety.’’)

Experts in witness protection say that if a witness is considered critical to a case they routinely move them to a town at least three to four hours away or entirely out of state. And by following that simple rule of order, the San Francisco Police Department — which runs a separate witness protection program from the district attorney’s operation — has not had a witness injured or killed in the last 40 years.

Considering how difficult it is to get someone to testify in a case involving wanton violence, Rollins’ killing could set local witness protection programs back years. Gang retaliation has a way of instilling fear in the general public — let alone someone who has seen up close and personal what people who think life is cheap are willing to do.

“If someone is willing to be a hero for their community, then we’re going to do whatever we can to protect them,’’ Deputy Police Chief Morris Tabak said. “But the fact that a key witness was killed is devastating to our efforts to get people to come forward. It’s extremely problematic for us and it’s very upsetting.’’

Harris told reporters that she had asked for money in February to increase the number of investigators, but in the wake of Rollins’ slaying, she wasn’t going to wait for more money to be authorized. But that’s a little disingenuous — her request was part of the routine budget submission process that every department head makes every year.

But I will agree with her assessment that “something is not working’’ — and they often don’t, when politics enmeshes a professional prosecutor’s office. When Lou Landini, the longtime investigative head, retired from the DA’s office some months back, Harris replaced him with Chris Cunnie.

Cunnie is a great and popular person, but the former head of the Police Officers’ Association was clearly seen as a political pick with strong union ties and support at City Hall.

It may be too early to tell what will happen to the two men who were indicted on murder charges, after Rollins testified before a grand jury and identified alleged gang members Daniel Dennard and Deonte Bennett as the men who opened fire on Arkelylius Collins and killed him last September. Rollins’ grand jury testimony cannot be used now because the two defendants would not be able to cross-examine the prosecution’s sole witness.

But if they end up walking, it’s fairly clear that it’s going to be that much harder to find people to “voluntarily’’ sign up for a program that moves them far from their family and friends and makes them a potential target for retaliation.

Or at least it’s supposed to move them far. Those little details can make all the difference.

Ken Garcia’s column appears Tuesdays, Thursdays and weekends in The Examiner. E-mail him at kgarcia@examiner.com or call him at (415) 359-2663.Bay Area NewsLocalNews Columnists

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