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Paul Vallas proposes citywide witness protection program

Video by Ashlee Rezin and Rahul Parikh

Mayoral challenger Paul Vallas on Friday proposed a citywide witness protection program to convince fearful residents of neighborhoods plagued by gang violence to provide the cooperation needed to bolster Chicago’s dismal homicide clearance rate.

The Cook County state’s attorney’s office already operates a witness assistance program, but Vallas said it provides only limited assistance and is available only to those who have been “directly threatened.”

Vallas envisions a citywide program directed by the Chicago Police Department Bureaus of Detectives and Organized Crime that would relocate witnesses to other neighborhoods, find them housing, perhaps using Section 8 vouchers, and provide stipends or “other resources” he did not specify.

It would be open to “witnesses who proactively work with authorities to identify and prosecute” those charged with “murder or other major crimes” — not just those who have already been threatened with retaliation.

“Sometimes, it’s as simple as giving them housing vouchers and relocating them elsewhere in the city. … There are individual detectives who have attempted to help witnesses on their own get relocated. They’re not talking about getting relocated under assumed names in Arizona,” Vallas told the Chicago Sun-Times.

Mayoral candidate Paul Vallas is interviewed by Sun-Times reporter Fran Spielman at City Hall Friday, Aug. 17, 2018. | Rich Hein/Sun-Times
Mayoral candidate Paul Vallas is interviewed by Sun-Times reporter Fran Spielman at City Hall Friday, Aug. 17, 2018. | Rich Hein/Sun-Times

“How are people gonna come forward if you can’t protect them? We all talk about, ‘The community knows who the killers are …[But] if you’re only clearing 5 percent of the shootings and … 17 percent of the murders, and there’s no way to protect these individuals or at least there’s the perception you can’t protect them, people aren’t gonna come forward.”

Vallas said the idea was suggested to him by veteran detectives frustrated with the cold shoulder they have long received when they attempt to question potential witnesses to murders and other violent crimes.

Mayoral challenger Lori Lightfoot, a former Police Board president, scoffed at the notion of a citywide witness protection program akin to the ones in Cincinnati and Pittsburgh.

That’s even though the police department has yet to hold anyone responsible for the recent weekend bloodbath that left 71 people shot and 12 of them dead.

“People need to be able to stay where they are without living in fear. That’s what the focus of government policy should be. The notion that we would, on a broad scale, relocate people outside of their neighborhoods away from friends, family and life is an abdication of responsibility,” Lightfoot said.

“People are afraid [to cooperate with police] because there’s too much violence, and they don’t see any progress. The way to change that is to build peace by bringing economic stability to neighborhoods and by bridging the divide between police and communities they serve. That’s what we need to focus on, not on another government program that’s gonna disrupt peoples’ lives by relocating them to different neighborhoods.”

Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s campaign manager Jay Rowell chided Vallas for proposing the police department “recreate a program that already exists at the state’s attorney office so taxpayers can pay twice.”

Department spokesman Anthony Guglielmi said the existing program run by the state’s attorney’s office is a “national best practice” because those same witnesses “are ultimately needed for testimony in criminal court proceedings.”

It makes sense to keep it that way “to avoid any type of abuse within the programs themselves,” Guglielmi wrote in an email.

Chicago’s homicide clearance rate has climbed from 31.6 percent in 2016 to 43.8 percent this year.

Police Supt. Eddie Johnson has promised to grow the Detective Bureau by 30 percent, Guglielmi said.

Already this year, more than 300 detectives have been promoted and added to case loads. Another class of detectives is expected to be promoted this fall.

Vallas has promised to rebuild the police department to 14,000 officers — with 1,200 detectives and one sergeant for every 10 officers — to erase years of “bad decisions” by Emanuel that, he claims, have contributed heavily to a surge in violent crime. He has also promised to hire back retired detectives to boost the homicide clearance rate.

On Friday, Vallas accused the mayor of so depleting the ranks of detectives –– to as low as 700 –– that he’s left with a group more inexperienced than at any time in the city’s history.

He also expressed concerns about the consent decree Emanuel has hammered out with Illinois Attorney General Lisa Madigan outlining terms of federal court oversight over the police department.

“This idea that we’re gonna need $10 million to administer the consent decree is ludicrous. … You can provide effective oversight without creating a whole cottage industry of $400-an-hour lawyers who are gonna basically monitor everything the police department is doing,” he said.

“And we’ve got to make sure that the consent decree does not so bog down the police department with reporting requirements that, even with their diminished numbers, too much time is being spent — not on their beats, but on paperwork.”