Cleveland police create relocation program for homicide witnesses
Witness-relocation efforts have previously relied on homicide detectives pulling cash out of their own pockets and pooling together funds
By Courtney Astolfi
CLEVELAND, Ohio – The Cleveland Division of Police is working to establish its first-ever formal witness-protection program in hopes of solving more homicides.
Roughly $13,000 out of a $17,000 state grant from the Ohio Office of Criminal Justice Services will be used by Cleveland police to temporarily re-locate homicide witnesses at risk of retaliation, during the course of a one-year pilot program.
Until now, witness-relocation efforts have often relied on homicide detectives pulling cash out of their own pockets and pooling together funds to pay for hotel rooms for at-risk family members or other witnesses, Commander of the Bureau of Special Investigations Ali Pillow told cleveland.com.
In other cases, police work with Cleveland Metropolitan Housing Authority, or housing-related organizations like Frontline Services to scrap together a solution, such as moving witnesses into a shelter, or using non-profit funding to pay for short hotel stays, Pillow recently told a City Council committee.
Rather than continuing to rely on such piecemeal efforts, the grant money will give the police department its own dedicated funding source to relocate such individuals, according to Pillow and city records.
Cleveland’s lack of a formal witness-relocation program routinely surfaces as a contributor to the number of homicide cases that go unsolved.
Pillow said that’s been a common refrain heard by the Cleveland Homicide Review Commission, which routinely meets to review investigations, determine how cases can be solved more effectively and efficiently, and identify why killings happen in the first place, among other duties.
“One of the key things we learned stalls investigations — in talking to families afterwards — was oftentimes the inability to be relocated after something happened,” Pillow told council’s Safety Committee last week.
Councilman Joe Jones agreed that fears of retaliation are preventing some crimes from getting solved. He recalled one instance from his Lee-Harvard community, when an older man was beaten after sharing with police Ring doorbell footage of a crime. When the man later witnessed another crime, he refused to talk to police because he feared for himself and his wife, Jones said.
The lack of a relocation program for homicide witnesses also contributes to the trauma faced by families and others contending with the death of a loved one.
“After something happened, they couldn’t process what was going on, [because they were still] concerned about their safety, and police didn’t have any resources to assist with that,” Pillow said.
Safety Committee Chair Michael Polensek favored the program, but he noted that the relatively small amount of state grant money wouldn’t go too far in protecting large numbers of witnesses.
Polensek and Jones favored the potential use of federal stimulus dollars to beef up the program further. Councilwoman Stephanie Howse said she believed the program would need to be funded “to the tune of a couple million dollars.”
Pillow said he and Safety Director Karrie Howard were actively looking to find another, more-permanent funding source to relocate witnesses.
While police officials have yet to determine who would be eligible for the funds and how the program would work, they hope that the one-year pilot program will help them determine how to run operations in future years. They plan to confer with Detroit police, and possibly New York City or Los Angeles police, to get a better understanding of best practices, Pillow said.
As of the first week of December, there had been roughly 145 homicides in the city of Cleveland this year. Pillow estimated that about 63% had been solved.
The grant money would help ongoing efforts by Cleveland police to increase the solve-rate, which appears to be on an upswing. A host of changes made to the homicide unit in 2021 helped detectives solve 64% of their cases last year – one of the best solve-rates in the last decade, and only the second time since 2013 when detectives solved more than 60% of homicides by the end of the year.
City Council on Monday signed off on the grant funding, a move required for the relocation program to move forward.
It was one of several police-related grants Council approved in its last meeting of the year, which included other state and federal money for $3000-hiring bonuses for police, fire, EMS and 911 dispatchers, a wellness and therapy program, a marketing plan meant to help recruit more first responders, and five additional civilian violence-interrupters for the Community Relations Board.