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DA looks to witness protection to encourage gang testimony

TRIBUNE PHOTO: JIM CLARK - Witnesses to gang violence in Portland rarely testify, unless involved in a plea bargain. Some cities have successfully used relocation programs to get more witnesses to come forward.    Rod Underhill thinks he soon may have a strategic weapon in the fight against gang violence, which appears to be surging this spring.

The Multnomah County district attorney says the single biggest impediment to solving and prosecuting gang shootings has long been the lack of witnesses willing to come forward and testify. In some neighborhoods what is called the G-Code, or snitch code, prevails.

But Underhill is ready to borrow a page from federal justice officials, who for decades have used witness protection and relocation programs in their fight against organized crime. By next year he may be able to tell those willing to testify about gang violence that he can give them a fresh start in another city. Similar programs have been up and running in a few other cities, and officials there say they can work — if a couple of key components are included.

For years, Portland officials and community leaders have been imploring witnesses to gang violence to come forward — mostly unsuccessfully. The new program would take a more realistic approach.

“What can we offer that is not symbolic, that tries to aid (witnesses) in their willingness to take that next step forward and participate?” Underhill says. An apartment in a different city, possibly with help finding a new job there is the short answer. Underhill says his office already has started drafting how the program would work. He’s contacted Oregon Department of Justice officials who just happen to have received a windfall $24 million in crime victims funding this year and are ready to dispense it to qualifying county programs.

Federal witness protection programs typically create entire new identities, including new Social Security numbers, for participants, and often sustain those witnesses for many years. That’s not possible with the limited funds available for local witness protection programs.

Success in other cities

Boston’s Suffolk County prosecutors have made use of a Massachusetts witness protection fund since it was created with $1 million in 2006. Each year the Suffolk County district attorney uses about $150,000 to relocate witnesses of gang violence, according to spokesman Jake Wark. About 165 witnesses have been relocated so far, at a cost of about $5,000 to $6,000 each.

That may not sound like much, but Wark says the unusual nature of the Boston gang scene makes it possible.

“In Boston, the landscape of gang activity is very, very local,” Wark says. That landscape is composed of gangs that identify themselves by neighborhood, not by an association with national gangs such as Crips and Bloods. Which means simply moving a willing witness to a crosstown neighborhood in Boston often provides adequate protection.

“This is a very sad truth of the limited exposure some of these kids have in the world,” Wark says. “If you can get them out of the neighborhood and move them to a neighborhood a mile or two away it’s essentially a different country.”

The Suffolk County DA generally pays first and last months rent at an apartment in a new neighborhood and attempts to hook up relocated witnesses, who usually are accompanied by one or two family members, with job possibilities close to their new homes. A stipend for groceries or transportation for a limited amount of time also is included. Wark says to date, not one relocated witness has been the victim of retaliation.

Twenty years ago, Portland’s gangs were similar to Boston in that they were more neighborhood focused. But with much of the Portland black community being dispersed to East Portland, turf battles here have greatly yielded to incidents based on gang affiliation. But Denver’s gang situation is more similar to Portland’s and witness protection has worked there, according to Steven R. Siegel, director of the Denver district attorney’s Special Programs Unit.

Desire for a new life

Since starting its program in 2000, Denver prosecutors have used witness protection in 316 cases, most involving gang violence. Critical to success, according to Siegel, is recognizing that witnesses will succeed in protection if they truly want to change their lives. If they are just about testifying and being kept safe, the limited protection offered by local programs probably won’t work and shouldn’t be tried.

“We can usually tell within the first hour of meeting someone whether it will work out or not,” Siegel says.

For those witnesses interested in life change, the Denver program offers a full range of limited duration social service case management, which can include metal health counseling and job retraining.

“We are teaching and engaging people to assist themselves, to keep themselves safe. We are not some sort of movie where we’re moving in with them and guarding the door while they sleep,” Siegel says.

The Denver DA spends about $3,000 on each of 40 to 50 relocation cases a year. But that money represents only a fraction of the program’s cost. About $500,000 a year is spent on personnel in the DA’s office to administer the program, which includes monitoring intelligence that might indicate a relocated witness is in trouble, in addition to the case management.

Among the most important lessons that relocated witnesses must learn, according to Siegel, is that they can’t be present on social media, and they can’t have any contact with their old world. “That’s going to mess with their heads,” he says.

Also, relocating a witness to a city where he or she has no connections is asking for trouble, Siegel says. Better to find a place where the witness has an old friend, mentor or coach — somebody with whom he or she can connect.

“It will work in all cases where people will engage and buy in,” Siegel says.

In Portland, most gang shootings occur outdoors and there are witnesses. Rarely is anybody willing to come forward and describe to police at the scene who committed the crime, much less testify in court about what they saw. The few who testify usually are other gang members who trade up — their testimony in return for dropped charges or preferential treatment by prosecutors.

Portland’s classic case

That’s the scenario that unfolded in the case of Robert Ford, a cautionary tale for Underhill if ever there was one.

In fact, Underhill was involved in Ford’s case a few years ago. Ford was fatally shot in the head outside a Southeast Portland gang hangout in 2012 after he testified against a rival gang member. When shot, he was in a federally funded witness protection program. But his story begins even before the crime he witnessed, Underhill says.

Ford, Underhill says, previously had been shot in a convenience store years ago. Prosecutors arrested a man they believed responsible and asked Ford to testify.

“He said, ‘Rod, I can’t do this. I’m a gangster, it’s against how I’ve grown up. It’s against my code. It’s just not what I do,’” Underhill recalls. “Even though he got shot a number of times and almost died.”

Years later, according to Underhill, Portland police heard that Ford and three other gang members were involved in shooting Crips member Thomas Graham. Ford was aligned with an offshoot of the Bloods. Ford was arrested on federal drug charges and was told if he named the shooters in the Graham case, federal officials would forgive the drug trafficking charges and provide out-of-state witness relocation.

Ford took the deal. According to Underhill, Ford’s testimony helped convict three men. Ford believed he would be killed in retaliation if he stayed in Portland. In time, however, Ford called Underhill and said he wanted to move back. He missed his familiar neighborhood.

Underhill told Ford that would be a bad idea.

“Your name’s a verb up here,” Underhill recalls saying. “Don’t pull a Ford.”

Two years later, without telling officials, Ford came back. Witnesses told police his shooter, Cleveland Dante Nelson III, shouted, “It’s that rat, Ford,” before firing through a car window.

Knowing why Ford returned to Portland would help local officials determine whether a witness protection program would work here.

Full services, or witnesses come back

What’s clear is that witness relocation must involve more than a bus ticket out of town and a few months of pre-paid rent. According to Lt. Mike Krantz with the Portland police gang enforcement team, once or twice a year Portland police cobble together funds to pay for an endangered witness to move out of town. The moves never stick.

“They eventually all come back,” Krantz says.

Brian Dale, a member of the Portland police gang enforcement team, says a witness protection program might work, for some. Dale says the rules of the snitch code and retaliation aren’t set in stone. In fact, he says he’s aware of a local gang member who recently came back to town and appears safe after testifying against another gang member. “It’s absolutely bizarre,” Dale says.

But for the most part, according to Dale, the message from bystander witnesses to violent crime is clear.

“Every time you talk to someone after a shooting they say, ‘You can’t protect me,’” Dale says.


Each year, the U.S Department of Justice gives Oregon's Department of Justice about $7 million to disperse to Oregon counties and nonprofits on behalf of crime victims. This year, the feds have sent Oregon $24 million in Victims of Crime Act funding. The money has been confiscated from convicted criminals. This year's bump in funding means that there may be money to fund the Multnomah County District Attorney's request to set up a state witness protection program fund.


Witness protection programs have become especially important since a national “Stop Snitchin'” campaign popularized on social media about 10 years ago, according to Steven R. Siegel, director of the Denver district attorney’s Special Programs Unit. A national YouTube campaign involving musicians, gang members and at least one prominent athlete warned people not to cooperate with criminal justice officals. Siegel says Denver police have seen “Stop Snitchin'” T-shirts draped over the police cars of officers taking statements after gang shootings.

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