Should witnesses be required to report violent crimes?
on January 19, 2010
The case of a 16-year-old girl who was raped at Richmond High, while as many as 20 people watched and did not call police, has inspired new proposed legislation authored by state lawmakers that would make it a misdemeanor to fail to contact authorities when witnessing a violent crime.
The two bills, one authored by Assemblyman Pedro Nava (D-Santa Barbara) and another by state Sen. Leland Yee (D-San Francisco) have sparked a mixed reaction.
Rev. Andre Shumake of the Richmond Improvement Association said he thinks it’s unfortunate that there has to be such legislation, but “there’s an incredible need for it.” Rhonda James, director of the crisis center Community Violence Solutions, said it’s unnecessary legislation and she doesn’t understand how it will be implemented. Only Yee’s bill is supported by the Richmond Police Department.
Nava’s measure, called the Witness Responsibility Act, would change an existing law and make it a misdemeanor to witness a rape, murder or violent crime and fail to report it to police. The current law mandates witnesses report such crimes only when the victim is under the age of 14.
Yee’s measure would also change the current law. Instead of lifting the age restriction, however, Yee’s bill changes it from 14 to 18.
Nava’s bill passed out of the Assembly Public Safety committee on Jan. 12. Yee’s bill will be heard during a Senate committee meeting in late February or early March, according to Adam Keigwin, one of Yee’s aides.
The Richmond Police Department supports Yee’s bill, but is not behind Nava’s.
“The Richmond Police Department understands the nature of both bills and supports Yee’s bill on its face,” Lt. Mark Gagan said. “Yee’s bill only changes the ages of victims protected from children under the age of 14 to children under the age of 18. Sen. Yee’s bill resonates with us because we agree there is vulnerability in victims under the age of 18.”
Keigwin said that Yee believes that “children don’t have the mental capability to go to law enforcement, where an adult victim has mental wherewithal,” to contact authorities. Removing the age restriction would take away some of an adult victim’s control of their case, Keigwin said.
Nava said he does not feel that Yee’s bill goes far enough.
“What do you say to the victim’s family when the victim is 18 and 1 day old, or 19?” Nava said. “And why should a witness be asked to make a determination of a victim’s age before they report it to the police?”
James, a crisis center director, said there are problems with both bills. She said she worries that people who were in the wrong place at the wrong time will be forced to testify – that someone could be penalized just for living in a rough neighborhood.
Also, the West County youth she works with can be hostile in participating with law enforcement, she said, and forcing them to cooperate with police won’t improve that relationship.
“There is a lot of fear of how a law like this can be implemented,” she said, “when you live in a neighborhood rife with crime.”
Rev. Shumake said he understands the difficulty in coming forward, especially when the witness lives near the crime scene. Still, he said, “we need every tool to bring to the table to help this madness end,” and that includes the proposed legislation.
“It could be that one motivating factor,” he said. “Unfortunately, often people need legislation like this to do what they know and believe in their heart is what the right thing to do.”
Shumake said that law enforcement also needs to create an environment where witnesses feel safe coming forward with information.
“If they build that working relationship, they will start to receive more phone calls,” Shumake said. “Peace is in all of our self interests. These communities do not want to continue to live in fear, but that environment has to be created where they can start coming forward.”
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