City, state leaders seek witness protection funds |
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Pittsburgh police Chief Robert W. McNeilly Jr. said Friday he will develop a plan to expand the city’s witness protection program and present it to Mayor Tom Murphy.

‘The mayor instructed me to do a study on the budget and needs of this program, which will vary based on the level of violence in the city,’ McNeilly said. ‘A couple of years ago, $60,000 was enough to run the program, but with the increase in homicides that number may need to increase.’

Beefing up the city’s five-member witness protection unit was a key point of discussion during a meeting of city, county, state and federal officials yesterday in Murphy’s office.

‘We need to get more resources for this marginally funded program,’ Murphy said at a news conference after the closed-door, 90-minute summit.

The possibility of federal funding for the unit will be discussed Tuesday. U.S. Senators Arlen Specter and Rick Santorum invited yesterday’s participants, social service leaders and community activists to meet at the Allegheny County Jail to talk about witnesses’ fear of coming forward to police.

County Executive Jim Roddey organized yesterday’s meeting to develop a more coordinated effort among the agencies to battle a rising homicide rate in the city.

City and county police leaders, state Attorney General Mike Fisher, county District Attorney Stephen A. Zappala Jr., acting U.S. Attorney Linda Kelly and county Coroner Cyril H. Wecht were among those in attendance.

As of yesterday, there have been 45 homicides in Pittsburgh this year. That is two more than the number for all of last year, and the trend puts the city on pace to surpass the 10-year average of 52 killings a year.

Police attribute 33 percent of the killings to drug trafficking, 20 percent to personal arguments and 16 percent to retaliation for other incidents. Domestic disputes, ongoing feuds and sexual motivations have also played a role in some slayings.

What’s next
A meeting is scheduled Tuesday at the Allegheny County Jail, Downtown, to discuss crime and the witness protection program. U.S. Sens. Rick Santorum and Arlen Specter, state Attorney General Mike Fisher, Pittsburgh Mayor Tom Murphy, Allegheny County Executive Jim Roddey and some local community leaders will attend. The group will discuss the need for increased federal funding to expand the witness protection program, which offers protection for people who testify in homicide cases.

Nineteen of the killings remain unsolved, police said.

Detectives may have better luck locking up the killers with stronger witness protection, officials said.

‘In many of the homicides and shootings, there have been a lot of people in the area witnessing the violence,’ McNeilly said. ‘But people are fearful to speak to police.’

The Pittsburgh Tribune-Review reported in July that the protection unit, which provides secure housing for witnesses of city and county homicides until they can testify, had already spent most of its $60,000 city budget.

An additional $20,000 in unused money from the previous year was added to the budget, officials said. But the unit now has a little less than $8,000 remaining.

Those at yesterday’s meeting all agreed the unit needs more money. But nobody could say exactly how much is needed or where it will come from.

‘Hopefully, it will come from some state or federal sources,’ Murphy said.

County officials are expected to help cover the costs of billboards promoting the program. The billboards will be erected on the North Side, Hill District and East End next month, officials said.

While the witness protection program helps solve crimes that have already occurred, other programs that police say prevent violence also were discussed.

Operation Target allows local police to refer weapon and drug charges to state and federal authorities for prosecution. Officials said programs like this get people with illegal guns off the street before violence occurs.

Judges and probation officials also will be involved in future discussions about instituting longer sentences for certain crimes, Murphy said.

All of those in attendance said the meeting helped ensure all law enforcement agencies working in the area are on the same page.

‘I think we all recognize now the need to collaborate and consolidate in some efforts,’ Wecht said of the many initiatives discussed during the meeting. ‘And I do not remember anything like this before in terms of cooperation among all the agencies.’

David Conti can be reached at [email protected] or (412) 441-0976.

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