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Missouri's $2 million witness protection fund finds few takers in second year of operation

Kansas City Mayor Quinton Lucas, left, talks to reporters about steps to reduce violence, including a witness protection program, in October 2019 in Columbia with, from left, then-Columbia Mayor Brian Treece, Springfield Mayor Ken McClure and then-St. Louis Mayor Lyda Krewson.
Don Shrubshell
Columbia Daily Tribune
Kansas City Mayor Quinton Lucas, left, talks to reporters about steps to reduce violence, including a witness protection program, in October 2019 in Columbia with, from left, then-Columbia Mayor Brian Treece, Springfield Mayor Ken McClure and then-St. Louis Mayor Lyda Krewson.

Police departments have tapped only $14,647 from the fund. Police in Kansas City have used some of the money to rent hotel rooms for crime victims who would be in danger if they remained in their residence.

In 2020, amid the worst wave of violent crime in almost 15 years, Missouri lawmakers set up a new witness protection program proponents said would break down barriers of silence that left perpetrators unpunished.

But since its creation, the program has gone almost unused.

Despite being authorized to spend $2 million annually, only $14,647 has been used since it was first funded in January 2021.

Of the state’s more than 600 law enforcement agencies, 13 have signed up to participate, said Mike O’Connell, spokesman for the state Department of Public Safety.

Of those signed up, only four — the Camden County Sheriff’s Department and the Springfield, Kansas City and St. Louis police departments — have actually used it.

The money has helped 30 adults and 24 youth, O’Connell said. The department has tried to make the fund as easy to use as possible, he wrote.

“DPS has not rejected a claim and provides training on how to utilize the fund, makes pre-registration available to law enforcement agencies to expedite expenditure reimbursements, and makes team members available to answer questions related to eligibility, potential uses, or any other aspect of the program,” he wrote in an email.

Almost half of the total spent so far — $7,270 — has been used by the Kansas City Police Department, mainly to purchase hotel rooms for crime victims who would be in danger if they remained in their residence, Sgt. Jacob Becchina, department spokesman, said.

Agencies that have used the program are pleased, for the most part, that the money is available. But they say there are few issues that make it more difficult to use than necessary.

“There can be some minimally challenging aspects regarding the fund, primarily the need to seek a ‘pre approval’ for the fund usage,” Becchina said.

In an emergency situation, he said, pre-approval can be difficult to obtain, and the need to keep some information confidential at early stages of an investigation can also interfere with the approval process.

“Those challenges have not prevented us from using the fund and we continue to explore it as an option as the situation dictates,” Becchina said.

The restrictions on which agencies can apply for funds also limits its use, said Dan Patterson, Greene County prosecuting attorney and president of the Missouri Prosecutors Association. Only police agencies, not prosecutors, can request funds to help keep a victim safe, he said.

He is not aware of any instance in the state where a prosecutor wanted a witness to have protection that the investigating agency wasn’t willing to provide, Patterson said.

“Another obstacle is that the program requires a law enforcement agency to spend the money up front and then seek reimbursement from the Department of Public Safety,” Patterson said.

The light use of the program could be due to a variety of factors, said Bob Shockey, executive director of the Missouri Police Chiefs Association. One explanation, he said, is that most police agencies haven’t encountered a situation where it was needed.

“It is being used as much as needed,” Shockey said. “I don’t know of any issues that have arisen through us.”

Violent year

In the summer of 2020, as the COVID-19 pandemic disrupted almost every aspect of daily life, violent crime reached a 15-year peak in Missouri.

St. Louis had the highest homicide rate in the nation in 2020 as violent death reached a 50-year high in the city. Kansas City, with 176 homicides, suffered through its worst murder count in its history.

Mayors of the state’s four largest cities — Kansas City, St. Louis, Springfield and Columbia — began working together in 2019 as violence increased, asking for a better witness protection program as one of their agenda items.

“What we will never do, and what we will never say, is this level of violent crime is acceptable,” Kansas City Mayor Quinton Lucas said after an October 2019 meeting with Springfield Mayor Ken McClure, then-Columbia Mayor Brian Treece and then-St. Louis Mayor Lyda Krewson. They said lawmakers needed to pass several measures, including a witness protection program.

In early July 2020, Lucas repeated his call for action, asking Gov. Mike Parson to convene a special session to address violent crime. The regular session that year was disrupted by COVID-19 and passed little other than the annual budget.

When Parson made his call he included the witness protection programalong with a request for lawmakers to take other steps, including raising the age for juveniles to be certified as adults in criminal cases, allowing greater latitude in testimony and increased penalties for people who sell firearms to juveniles.

Lucas thanked Parson publicly for adding witness protection to the call.

“We hear time and time again, here in Kansas City…about situations where there are folks who want to talk but cannot feel safe, do not feel safe being in their community, and our witness protection funding will be an important part of it,” Lucas said.

While the special session ended with most proposals failing to pass, the witness protection program made it to Parson’s desk.

The bills passed in the session are “valuable tools that will build on our efforts to combat violent crime, support law enforcement officers, and make our communities safer,” Parson said in a news release.

In another special session in the fall, lawmakers appropriated the first $2 million.

The Kansas City Police Department was the first to use the fund, tapping it for $116.68 in April 2021. That was the entire outlay for the fiscal year and by the time it ended June 30, 2021, the fund had earned more in interest than had been spent.

Authorized to spend up to $2 million again this fiscal year, total costs allowed so far are $14,530.

After learning in June 2021 that the fund had only been used once, Lucas told the Kansas City Star that he was “frustrated” it was not.

“He’s still frustrated,” Melesa Johnson, Lucas’ deputy chief of staff, said Friday. “Obviously, it’s definitely underutilized.”

Violent crime rates have fallen since they peaked in 2020. The state’s four largest cities reported a 19.7% decline in all violent crime such as rape, aggravated assault and murder and a 26% decline in homicides in 2021, according to FBI crime statistics.

But that doesn’t lessen the need for a robust witness protection program, Johnson said.

Individuals charged with crimes in Kansas City are either housed in the limited space of the Jackson County Jail, housed in other counties or released.

“So we’re shipping our inmates elsewhere because of limited jail space, which unfortunately causes people that are accused of some fairly heinous crimes to be out back on the street, not long after they committed their initial offense,” Johnson said.

Program ‘tweaks’

After hearing about the new witness protection program at a Missouri Police Chiefs Association meeting, Smithville Chief Jason Lockridge signed up his department. His city of about 10,500 people on the edge of Kansas City straddles the Clay-Platte county line and has 20 officers.

“It is not hard to use or difficult to sign up,” Lockridge said. “And DPS made it known that if you are not signed up at the time, you need to use it, that’s OK. We just got signed up to get it out of the way.”

The way he understands the program — his department has not actually had to use it yet — he expects reimbursement will be speedy, faster than other grants that cover actual spending.

“It is about knowing it is there and knowing it is available and putting it to use,” Lockridge said. “The fact that we haven’t had to use it so far is just a blessing in our community.”

One possible reason for light use of the fund may be matching the allowed uses with purchasing rules. At the St. Louis Police Department, spending over a certain amount requires a legal review and approval from the Board of Aldermen, said Maggie Barone, a victim advocate for the department.

“Once we were able to get all the paperwork figured out and everything like that, I mean, I’ve had absolutely no issues whatsoever,” she said.

The law allows departments to find safe housing for victims if necessary. For St. Louis, Barone said, that meant contracting with hotels to provide temporary housing.

“The city can’t just cut some random landlord a check and say, ‘Here you go,’” Barone said.

If, after a few days, the victim can safely return home, they do so, she said. Otherwise, the city tries to find them other housing, working with landlords, but expects the victim to continue paying their own rent.

“We’ll keep them in the hotel as long as we can, until we can secure an alternative housing situation for them,” she said.

The state’s law enforcement agencies include 115 county sheriffs, the Missouri State Highway Patrol and almost 500 municipal and specialized police departments.

The smallest have one officer and a budget of less than $100,000 and the largest have hundreds of officers and budgets in excess of $100 million, Shockey said.

The association emphasizes the availability of the program at its quarterly meetings, in email blasts to member departments and in other communication, he said.

He sees no reason to change the program, he said.

“I just think the word needs to get out and if it is not being used, that is a good thing,” Shockey said.

Johnson, however, said that “definitely, some tweaks can be made” to make better use of the money appropriated by lawmakers.

Every request for help from the fund has been granted. Maybe that means increasing use is as simple as encouraging departments to request help more often, she said.

“That says to me and to Mayor Lucas that they aren’t offering it to the degree that they potentially should,” she said. “And so maybe we just need to ramp that up.”

Perhaps the program should not require up-front spending that is reimbursed, she said.

That would mean small grants, with reporting of how the money is used.

Another change lawmakers should consider is making funds available to not-for-profit victim service organizations, she said. Some people, she said, mistrust the police and would, if helped by a not-for-profit, become willing witnesses.

“The harsh reality is that numerous people that typically live in the urban core do have genuine concerns about law enforcement from historical events, national events, and local events,” Johnson said. “And we have to wrap our mind around that sometimes, a non-KCPD solution may be the answer.”

This story was originally published on the Missouri Independent.

Rudi Keller covers the state budget, energy and the legislature for the Missouri Independent.
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