Proposed act would protect witnesses of gang crimes

Ciara McCarthy, Assistant City Editor

Illinois state senators will vote in the coming weeks on a bill that would provide protection to witnesses of gang crimes, a measure that could help the efforts of Evanston police.

The Gang Crime Witness Protection Act of 2013 unanimously passed the Illinois House in April.

Police have determined the two most recent homicides in Evanston are gang-related. Justin Murray and Javar Bamberg were shot dead late last year as part an ongoing gang-affiliated family feud. The investigations have been stalled because not all witnesses are cooperating, according to police.

Evanston Police Cmdr. Jay Parrott said witnesses to gang crimes are often unwilling to cooperate with police because of a “no-snitch culture.” Parrott said the bill could provide greater incentive for them to come forward.

State Rep. Chris Welch (D-Westchester), the chief sponsor of the bill, said it would create a new fund that would protect and, in extreme cases, relocate, witnesses of gang crimes who are unwilling to provide information out of fear of retaliation. Welch (Communication ‘93) said he observed gang problems while living in Evanston that are similar to those in his district.

“I think it’s a good tool for law enforcement throughout the state of Illinois to break the code of silence and get these crimes solved,” he said.

The Illinois Criminal Justice Information Authority would create the program, Welch said. Local police could apply for funding through the ICJIA in the event of a gang crime.

Parrott acknowledged the bill would be another tool for lawmakers but said the legislation might have limited impact in the face of a larger no-snitch culture.

“There may be a witness, but they may not want to snitch,” Parrott said. “They’re embedded in that culture.”

Parrott said gang members or witnesses to gang crimes would have to be willing to leave the gang environment before working with police or accepting protection services.

State Sen. Patricia Van Pelt (D-Chicago), who is sponsoring the bill in the Illinois Senate, said she expected the bill to pass. Van Pelt said the legislation would allow law enforcement to solve more crimes.

“We’ll get more crimes solved because more people will step up,” she said. “Silence in the community is largely because of fear.”