Center for Problem-Oriented Policing

Understanding Your Local Problem

The above information provides only a generalized description of the problem of witness intimidation. To combat witness intimidation effectively, you must combine the basic facts with a more specific understanding of your local problem. Only by carefully analyzing your local problem will you be able to design an effective remedial strategy.

Stakeholders

The following groups have an interest in the witness intimidation problem and ought to be considered for the contribution they might make to gathering information about the problem and responding to it:

  • victim-witness units
  • crime victim advocacy groups
  • prosecutors
  • defense attorneys
  • courts
  • witnesses’ families and friends
  • witnesses’ employers
  • public housing authorities or apartment complex managers.

Asking the Right Questions

Intimidation can occur at any time, from the point when a criminal incident first occurs to the moment the witness provides evidence in court; hence, it is essential to collaborate with prosecutors, victim advocates, and other stakeholders in analyzing and solving the problem. Because many witnesses drop out of the process before their cases go to court, it is essential to survey witnesses and victims at multiple points in the process so that their responses address all the reasons and issues that deter them from cooperating fully. Finally, police cannot respond effectively to a problem if they do not recognize its occurrence. Police awareness can be increased through training, shift briefings, and police newsletters.[33] Guidance should be offered for spotting signs of intimidation; even something as simple as requiring officers taking statements or interviewing witnesses to ask about intimidation directly can be an effective analytical tool.[34] †Unfortunately, training curricula regarding the warning signs and typical behaviors of those who have been intimidated are not well developed.

† The Philadelphia District Attorney’s Office, Victim Services Division, utilizes a short interview guide to collect relevant facts about intimidation. It includes questions about the intimidator, type of intimidating conduct, and the time and place that the intimidation occurred. A copy of the interview guide is available in Finn and Healey (1996).

The following are some critical questions that you should ask in analyzing your local witness intimidation problem. Your answers to these and other questions will help you choose the most appropriate set of responses later on.

Incidents

  • What types of behaviors do victims and witnesses perceive as intimidating or threatening?
  • What do offenders say to witnesses that creates a fear of retribution?
  • How often are acts of intimidation violent? How often do they involve property damage?
  • Are the family members of witnesses threatened or intimidated?
  • What do witnesses believe will happen if they cooperate with police or prosecutors?
  • Is there a general sense among community members that they should not cooperate with police? If so, what contributes to this attitude?
  • In what proportion of reported crime does witness intimidation occur? What do these incidents have in common? Type of offense? Location? Offender profile?
  • In what proportion of crimes is intimidation unreported? What accounts for the failure to report incidents of intimidation?

Intimidators

  • Which individuals act or speak in ways that witnesses perceive as threatening? Offenders? Their associates? Friends? Family members?
  • After what types of crime does intimidation occur?
  • What roles do gangs and drugs play in intimidation?
  • Do the friends or family members of witnesses act or speak in ways that lead witnesses to not cooperate?
  • Do offenders focus their intimidation efforts within their own communities or do they travel outside their communities to deter witnesses from cooperating?

Victims

  • What are the characteristics of those who are deterred from cooperating with police and prosecutors? Gender? Age? Race? Criminal history? Previous victimization?
  • Why do some witnesses continue to cooperate with police and prosecutors, despite having been threatened?
  • What do witnesses say it would take for them to testify despite any intimidation?
  • Where do the victims of intimidation live and work in relation to the intimidators?
  • What types of relationships do witnesses have with those who intimidate them?
  • What roles do culture and immigration status play in intimidation?
  • Were those who are intimidated involved in the commission of the original offense? Do they have a history of criminal activity with the intimidators?
  • Why are those on parole or probation reluctant to cooperate with police and prosecutors? Are there specific violations that they are trying to conceal by not cooperating?

Locations/Times

  • Where do victims and witnesses feel most vulnerable to intimidation? Home? Work? School? Out and about in the community? At the precinct? In court?
  • When do incidents of intimidation occur? At the scene? When witnesses provide statements at the precinct? When witnesses are asked to identify suspects? During the trial? After the trial is over?

Motivations

  • What reasons do intimidators give for their behavior?
  • What do offenders indicate would deter them from trying to intimidate witnesses?

Current Responses

  • What has been done by police and prosecutors in the past to minimize case-specific intimidation?
  • What has been done in the past by police and prosecutors to address community-wide intimidation?
  • Have police or prosecutors inadvertently validated community perceptions or fears related to intimidation? If so, how? By losing a case where a witness testified? By eroding public trust during a police incident? By assisting in immigration enforcement in an ethnic neighborhood?
  • What are the penalties for witness tampering or intimidation? Are intimidators aware of them? Are they sufficiently harsh?
  • Which current responses focus on the victim or witness? Which focus on the offender and his or her family and associates?
  • What are the strengths of current responses to the problem of intimidation?
  • Are current responses sufficient to resolve the problem? If not, why not?
  • What other agencies or organizations can play a role in a comprehensive response to the problem of witness intimidation? Do police and prosecutors have existing relationships with these agencies or organizations?
  • What sources of funding are available to support the efforts of police and prosecutors in dealing with the problem of witness intimidation?

Measuring Your Effectiveness

Measurement will allow you to determine the degree to which your efforts have succeeded and may also suggest how your responses can be modified to produce the intended results. In order to determine how serious the problem is, you should measure the extent of your problem before you implement responses; in that way, measuring the problem after responses have been implemented will allow you to determine whether your solutions have been effective. All measures should be implemented in both the target area and surrounding areas. (For more detailed guidance on measuring effectiveness, see the companion guide to this series, Assessing Responses to Problems: An Introductory Guide for Police Problem-Solvers.)

The following are potentially useful measures of the effectiveness of responses to witness intimidation:

  • reduced number of witnesses who experience threats or intimidation
  • increased number of witnesses who provide information to police
  • increased number of witnesses who provide statements to police
  • increased number of witnesses who agree to testify in court
  • increased proportion of convictions.

The following may offer an indirect indication that the situation is improving:

  • increased proportion of crimes reported to police
  • increased number of witnesses who are aware of the protections that are available to them
  • increased number of witnesses who report intimidation†
  • increased number of offenders who are charged with intimidation
  • increased public confidence in the criminal justice system and its ability to protect the citizenry.

† The Savannah Police Department established a witness protection program with the goal of reducing the number of intimidation incidents. The number of incidents initially increased because police began to ask all victims and witnesses if they felt afraid or had experienced intimidation, rather than relying on victims and witnesses to initiate the discussion (Goldkamp, Gottfredson and Moore 1999).