Participants at a community forum Tuesday night moved one step closer to solving at least some of Hartford’s back log of 228 unsolved murders. While police and court officials said repeatedly that they need the community’s help in solving these murders, members of the community began pointing out some of the reasons why that assistance – primarily in the form of giving evidence to the police – is not as forthcoming as it should be and what can be done to remedy that.
These remedies included increased publicity of unsolved cases, more substantial rewards and building a better relationship between the community and the police.
The concensus of the group appeared to be that the main reason city residents don’t come forward with information on murders and other violent crimes is fear of retribution from the accused.
Longtime community activist Steve Harris said, “There is fear in our community. It is there and it is real.”
A.J. Johnson asked, “If you want people to step forward [with testimony about a crime], what kind of protection can you give them??What kind of incentives can you provide?”
State’s Attorney Gail Pettaway Hardy responded, “The incentive [to give testimony] should always be because it’s doing the right thing. If you do that, we’ll protect you to the best of our abilities.”
In her opening remarks, Hardy had acknowledged that giving evidence to the police is not as easy as it is often made out to be. “I know it’s difficult because you will be going back to the same community where the crime was committed...it is very important to us that those who come forward stay safe.” Hardy said the state does have a witness protection program. She also requested that police be more cognizant of the safety of witnesses when they write up their arrest warrants. “Can we use initials [instead of full names]? Do we have to use addresses [of witnesses]?”
While many at the forum reacted favorably to enhancing the state’s reward program for witnesses whose evidence leads to the arrest and conviction of a criminal, Hardy questioned the effectiveness of this approach. In the five and a half years she has been assigned to the Hartford area, she said, she has applied for 20 rewards but only one resulted in a conviction.
Another major topic at Tuesday’s forum was how to keep cold cases from being forgotten.
Lieutenant Brian Foley, head of the Hartford Police Department’s Major Crime Division, spoke about an innovative program that was introduced into the Connecticut prison system about two years ago. Inmates were issued decks of playing cards with a photo and details on unsolved murders and missing persons, along with a number to call to give evidence. Foley said, “If this program had resulted in one arrest, I would consider it a success, but in fact it has resulted in several arrests.”
Jacqueline Oliver, who came to the forum because her brother had been murdered and his killer has yet to be found, suggested that such playing cards should be distributed in the areas where the crimes occurred. She also suggested that posters depicting victims of unsolved homicides should be put up at the crime scene, reasoning that local people who see the poster may also have seen the crime.
Other suggestions for keeping cold cases in the public eye included producing spots on local TV and running articles in community papers.
Tuesday’s forum was organized by “We Works,” a coalition of ministers and anti-violence activists, including Pastor Sam Saylor of Blackwell A.M.E. Zion Church; Andrew Woods of Hartford Communities That Care; Rev. David Hendricks of Men of Color; and Rev. Jarmaine Lee of Mother’s United Against Violence. Saylor, who son was murdered last October, opened the meeting by saying, “I got the closure of knowing that the killer of my son is behind bars. If the community could rally around my son, if the police could work overtime for my son, they can do it for other victims, so that their families can get the same closure I got.”