City Witness Protection Unit Has Perfect Record
Greenwood, Jill King, Tribune-Review/Pittsburgh Tribune-Review
Witness protection billboards like this one along Perrysville Avenue in the North Side are part of Pittsburgh's successful program.
Few people believed Pittsburgh police could protect witnesses in the aftermath of a daylight slaying in Hazelwood of a young woman scheduled to testify against gang members.
"A lot of people said, 'good luck,' " recalled city Detective Brenda Tate. "They told us it would never work, and this would never last. But we've had so many successes over the years, and I think we've truly made a difference in changing people's lives."
The most significant measure of success: No harm has come to a protected witness since the July 1994 slaying of Verna Robinson, 21, of Hazelwood.
Since then, the witness protection unit has handled about 230 cases involving more than 500 people. Witnesses and victims often enter the program with children or other relatives who need assistance, Sgt. Marcia Malloy said.
The unit, which has handled 11 cases this year, often assists other police departments in Allegheny County. It has helped find safe houses for witnesses from outside Pennsylvania, Malloy said.
"We've had people come in seriously addicted to drugs and alcohol and had to get them clean before we could help them," she said. "We've helped people who were confined to wheelchairs and needed housing that had accessible ramps. Other people were on dialysis or had medical problems that needed to be addressed.
"We've had everything thrown at us, and we have to figure out how to make it work. Nothing is black and white. There's a lot of gray area to deal with."
The success of the Pittsburgh program contrasts with the problems confronting similar efforts across the nation.
In recent years, witnesses in protection programs in Newark, N.J., and New Orleans have been gunned down before they reached a courtroom. A Colorado program has lost 16 witnesses to slayings since its inception in 1995.
In San Bernardino, Calif., at least three men whose testimony put killers behind bars in gang-related murders were slain after refusing the county's help.
"It's a frustrating program to run," said David LaBahn, a former prosecutor for Orange County, Calif., who directs research for the National Association of District Attorneys in Virginia. "It's only as good as the witness cooperation. We can only do so much, and the resources are limited. We have to convince witnesses to work with police and join the program, but then we can't always count on them to cooperate with us in keeping themselves safe."
Working with families
Pittsburgh started its operation with many constraints and few resources.
Malloy said the average cost of relocating and protecting a witness and relatives is between $6,000 and $7,000. Some witnesses spend only a few days in the program. Others remain for years.
The program's annual budget -- which falls under the city's Department of Public Safety operating budget -- is $87,000, records show.
Most of those in the program are single mothers with two or more children, District Attorney Stephen A. Zappala Jr. said. The unit works with the school board and other agencies to arrange home- schooling and tutors, Tate said.
Eleven years ago, an Allegheny County mother found herself in a desperate situation and questioned whether the witness protection program could keep her and her family alive.
The woman, who didn't want her name published, had watched in horror as her young son died after wandering into the middle of a gang shooting. The mother saw the shooter, and the police wanted her help prosecuting him.
"I immediately started getting threatened," she said. "I was terrified. I had (another son) to protect, but I didn't know if I could trust this program. What were they really going to do for me to keep me safe? I figured those people would get to me and kill me anyway. …