Flint police chief calls for more witness protection to reduce violent crime

(Jake May/The Flint Journal via AP)

On his very first day in office back in 2020, Flint, Michigan Police Chief Terence Green oversaw the destruction of nearly 400 firearms that had been seized by police, rather than selling them at auction. The anti-gun effort was spearheaded by Mayor Sheldon Neely, not Green himself, but the chief still had lots of positive things to say about the mayor’s politically-driven move at the time, calling it a “strong stance as part of our overall fight to reduce gun violence.”

In actuality, destroying the guns had no impact whatsoever on the city’s crime rate, with both homicides and non-fatal shootings increasing by substantial amounts in 2021. But while Green may still be willing to go along with the mayor’s anti-gun agenda, it appears he’s finally speaking out in favor of strategies that actually can make a difference and don’t involve targeting inanimate objects or legal gun owners.

During a May 9, 2022, Flint City Council meeting, Police Chief Terence Green said he has three “primary” initiatives that he wants to fund using ARPA dollars which include a violence interrupters program, witness protection, and youth intervention and enrichment programs.

“A violence interrupter program…basically utilizes members of the community to interrupt violence. They’re in the community. Their ear is in the community,” Green explained in the May 9 meeting. “Community members tend to confide in them a lot quicker than they would law enforcement.”

Green told the council that the police department has begun implementing initiatives to combat violent crime, including a “geographically-focused policing initiative” and hiring 29 full-time officers since September 2020, including five who have recently graduated from the police academy.

We’ve heard a lot from the left (including Joe Biden) about the need to fund “violence interrupters” and other community-oriented violence prevention groups, and I’m all in favor.. as long as those groups have a track record of success and there are measures of accountability put in place to ensure that this doesn’t just become a way for politicians to direct hundreds of thousands of dollars to their political allies and personal friends.
What really intrigues me about Green’s new initiatives, however, is the focus on improving witness protection services.

Green said in addition to the violence interrupters program, witness protection would also help ease fears of retaliation, potentially helping solve cases in Flint.

He said about a year and a half ago, the police department partnered with the Genesee County Prosecutor’s Office to convene a grand jury for violent crime cases resulting in the indictment of more than 80 people.

With a grand jury, Green said the witnesses could testify privately without fear of retaliation. But, he said there would come a time when their information would be made public.

“We still have to provide safety to those witnesses … we may have to relocate them, provide them shelter, things of that nature,” Green said.

Last year, Green pleaded with the community to come forward with information about violent crimes to help the police solve cases. Many victims feared retaliation and adhered to a “street code” against “snitching,” he said.

With this program, Green said he hopes to show witnesses that the department is committed to protecting their safety and their families.

“I truly believe … that more witnesses will come forward and provide crucial information so these cases, whatever it is, a drive-by shooting, homicide, sexual assault, will be solved,” Green said.

The fear of retaliation is real and not unfounded, frankly. Imagine you witness a shooting on your street corner. You can identify the shooter, but you know that his buddies are also hanging around watching as police canvass the area to speak with people like yourself. Even if the suspect remains behind bars while awaiting trial, chances are good that his associates are still going to be on the streets and in a position to do you harm if you open your mouth. Helping witness to relocate if necessary, in order to ensure their cooperation and testimony in open court, can mean the difference between a conviction and an acquittal, or simply dropping charges altogether. When that happens, violent criminals feel even more emboldened to act with impunity, and future witnesses become even more imperiled for willingly testifying or providing information to authorities.

Every one of the initiatives announced by Green has a much better chance of reducing violent crime than melting down seized firearms, though I suspect that the chief will continue to go along with that as well, at least as long as the mayor believes there’s political benefit to be found. And since Green’s new initiatives are going to be funded through Biden’s “American Rescue Plan,” Flint officials don’t have to figure out how to fund these initiatives themselves, which might have prompted a re-examination of their policy of destroying seized firearms. There’s no reason why Flint should still be destroying seized firearms instead of auctioning off those possessed illegally, but I doubt very much whether that bit of anti-gun performance art is going to disappear anytime soon.