Flint, MI – For Councilwoman Tonya Burns, summertime is when the weather gets warmer, but it’s also when she hears gunshots and sirens more regularly in her neighborhood just off Ballenger Road.
“I want us all to have safe neighborhoods and not to hear the gunshots ringing out that we hear all day, every day,” Burns told Flint Beat.
She said in her talks with witnesses of crimes, a common issue she hears is that they don’t report what they saw to police because they don’t have the money to go somewhere safe to protect themselves from retaliation or public intimidation.
Burns said she’d received an emailed letter from witnesses that she shared with other councilmembers. In it, she said, they wrote that “they needed protection” and that “they were told that they will be in the witness protection,” causing her to question why Flint wasn’t working to create a program to help them.
But with newly allocated funding, she and other officials hope that’s soon to change.
On Monday, March 27, 2023, Flint City Council approved a $300,000 agreement for a new Flint witness protection program through the Genesee County Prosecutor’s Office.
The funding comes by way of Flint’s American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) dollars, part of the city’s overall ARPA spending plan passed in October 2022.
Police Chief Terence Green said Genesee County commissioners have to approve the funding before the program will go into effect.
Otherwise, the Genesee County Prosecutor’s Office is responsible for setting up the funding through their already-existing witness services program infrastructure, according to the agenda packet from council’s March 27 Special Affairs Committee meeting.
While Assistant Prosecutor John Potbury and other representatives from the prosecutor’s office did not respond to Flint Beat’s requests for comment by press time, the available language in council’s packet says the agreement with the prosecutor’s office begins April 1, 2023 and ends April 1, 2025.
For Flint’s part, Green said the police department’s role in the program will be to help the county prosecutor’s office identify witnesses, whom he defined as people who provide testimony in a court of law related to a crime.
“It’s our obligation to protect them,” Green said.
The funding for the program will go toward the needs of witnesses, Green said, which could be relocation or temporary housing.
Burns added that witnesses may need to stay in a hotel until a case is over or a suspected perpetrator is incarcerated.
However, the witness protection program serves more purposes than just protecting witnesses, Green said, as he views the program as going “hand in hand” with another proposal also before Flint City Council: a cold case unit.
At council’s last meeting, multiple councilmembers expressed support for a potential cold case unit, as well. However, the meeting lost quorum before members were able to vote on it.
Green said once the police department begins reviewing homicide cold cases, they are going to be locating further witnesses and other evidence.
“Now that this witness protection program exists, more people might come forward on some of these cold case investigations and provide vital and very important evidence and information,” Green said.
Burns noted she thinks the witness protection program will help with Flint’s crime rates, too. Right now, she said a lot of the people committing crimes are “fearless” because they’re not getting caught, and there’s also retaliatory violence following initial crimes.
“It doesn’t stop even when they bury someone,” she said, adding that she believes witnesses are scared that they might be killed if they talk about what happened in a crime.
Now that those witnesses can be protected, though, she hopes to see a different outcome in new and old cases.
“It helps us to finally close those cases and give the family closure, getting the criminals off the street,” she said.
Burns said she meets with families of the victims of crimes often, and she just wants the city to save lives by solving crimes.
“It’s a terrible thing to try to console the parent who’s lost a child – 14 years old, 15 years old, 16 years old – from gun violence,” she said. “I want better for our community.”