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Witness intimidation deprives investigators and prosecutors of critical evidence, often preventing suspects from being charged or causing cases to be abandoned or lost in court.In addition, witness intimidation lowers public confidence in the criminal justice system and creates the perception that the criminal justice system cannot protect the citizenry.First, crime is underreported based upon a number of factors that have nothing to do with witness intimidation.†† Second, where intimidation is successful, victims and witnesses report neither the initial crime nor the intimidation. Third, although victimization surveys and interviews with witnesses whose cases go to court are helpful, they capture only a subset of the larger population of witnesses.They do not provide information on the experiences of the many witnesses who drop out of the process before a suspect is charged or a case goes to court. Finally, there has been no empirical research on the scope or specific characteristics of community-wide intimidation.As a result, police expend significant time and energy persuading witnesses to come forward; and when they do, police spend considerable energy reassuring and protecting them.Understanding the factors that contribute to the problem of witness intimidation will help to frame local analysis, to determine good effectiveness measures, to recognize key intervention points, and to select appropriate responses.
Anecdotes and surveys of police and prosecutors suggest that witness intimidation is even more widespread. Prosecutors estimate that witness intimidation plays a role in 75 to 100 percent of violent crime committed in gang-dominated neighborhoods, although it may play less of a role in communities not dominated by gangs and drugs. The increasing prevalence of witness intimidation is a reflection of the same social and psychological factors that have changed the nature of crime and offenders over the past two decades, including: Most intimidation is neither violent nor life-threatening, but even a perception that reprisals are likely can be distressing and disruptive to witnesses. Experiencing intimidation reduces the likelihood that citizens will engage with the criminal justice system, both in the instant offense and in the future. Although the public tends to overestimate the actual risk of harm, its fear and the resulting reluctance to cooperate can have serious collateral consequences for the criminal justice system.Either way, they are deterred from offering relevant information that might assist police and prosecutors.Particularly in communities dominated by gang and drug-related crime, residents have seen firsthand that offenders are capable of violence and brutality.Most often, victims did not report crime because they believed that the incident was too trivial to involve police or that the matter was personal (Karmen 2004; Catalano 2005).That said, small-scale studies and surveys of police and prosecutors suggest that witness intimidation is pervasive and increasing.
Particularly in violent and gang-related crime, the same individual may, at different times, be a victim, a witness, and an offender. Historically, witness intimidation is most closely associated with organized crime and domestic violence, but has recently thwarted efforts to investigate and prosecute drug, gang, violent, and other types of crime.