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'No Snitch' Code Leaves Homicides Unsolved. CCROW Aims To Change That

 cincinnati shooting
John Minchillo
Police tape is hung at the scene of a shooting, Friday, Oct. 19, 2018, in downtown Cincinnati. Police at the time said they were searching for a suspect who shot a 16-year-old male in the leg.

Before the holiday season began a few weeks ago, Cincinnati City Council's Law and Public Safety Committee heard from family members who've lost loved ones to violence.

Committee members hope this annual tradition is a reminder of the lives lost to gun violence. But family members hope keeping their loved one's name in the public sphere will inspire somebody to come forward and help solve a murder.

The city offers protection to people who want to come forward without fear of retaliation through a program called Cincinnati Citizens Respect Our Witnesses, also known as CCROW.

"All day long, that's  all I can do is think about it. There's days I can't breathe," Geraldine Davis said through tears. Her son Larry Davis was killed in Avondale in March.

Tequila Smith also spoke at the meeting, telling officials she convinced her brother Basil Blackman to move to Cincinnati to avoid gun violence in Chicago. He was shot and killed in June.

Amy Thompson told committee members her brother Brian Thompson was murdered after a nearby dice game turned violent. He was getting home from a store when somebody tried to steal his car for a quick getaway and shot him. His seven-month-old daughter was in the back seat. Thompson says it's the "no snitch" street code that prevents people from coming forward with information about deadly crimes.

"They don't understand the streets don't love you," Thompson said. "They all live by this no-snitch law." Even family members and friends who show up to candlelight vigils hesitate to come forward with information.

"None of them won't go pick out a mugshot or speak up," she said.

'Retaliation Is Real'

City officials acknowledge that kind of street culture and say coming forward with information about crimes can have tough consequences for people.

"But there are people that live in these communities ... that just have this fear of coming forward. And it's real," said Karen Rumsey, a homicide victim's advocate, social worker and leader of CCROW. "Retaliation — even the thought of what could happen — is so real." 

The program operates like a local version of a witness protection program, but it doesn't provide people with a fake identity. Instead, witnesses are assigned a caseworker, can be temporarily housed in hotels while they're testifying, and get help relocating themselves and their families.

Since 2016, 233 CCROW witnesses have helped in homicide and other major cases. Most of them never had to testify in court. Rumsey says fear of testifying is what sometimes stops witnesses from sharing what they know. That was the case in the murder of Kelsie Crow, the program's namesake.

The 17-year-old was shot and killed while leaving a "sweet 16" party in Walnut Hills in 2015. More than 100 people were there when the shooting happened but only two told authorities they saw the shooter.

Rumsey said both witnesses were threatened the weekend before the trial started. As a result, one of them refused to testify, pleading the fifth during questioning. The accused shooter in the case was acquitted and nobody has ever been convicted of killing Crow.

For Rumsey, that's a prime example of the reason the CCROW program exists.

"But we have to look at justice for these families — for these unsolved homicides, justice starts with a person being accountable," she said. "And if they never get arrested, then they're not accountable. And I guarantee you, they're gonna wait and do it again." 

Rumsey and grieving families say CCROW provides a safe place for witnesses to come forward with information about crimes, which is especially relevant this year asgun violence in the city reaches record highs.

According to the Cincinnati Police Department, there have been 444 gunshot victims in the city this year and 79 shooting deaths -- the highest in at least five years. There have been almost 90 total homicides this year.

Jolene Almendarez is the granddaughter of Mexican immigrants who came to San Antonio in the 1960s. She was raised in a military family and has always called the city home. She studied journalism at San Antonio College and earned a bachelor's degree in Journalism and Public Communications from the University of Alaska Anchorage. She's been a reporter in San Antonio and Castroville, Texas, and in Syracuse and Ithaca, New York.