Her name was Kelsie Crow, and she was only 17 when she died. Her life was cut short way too soon, but Cincinnati Police Chief Eliot Isaac and two of his staff, using their shared experience as Xavier students, hope her untimely death can be the catalyst for the kind of change needed to solve murders and homicides like hers.
The key is convincing witnesses to come forward. The reality is that most don’t, falling victim to the “no-snitch mentality” out of fear of retaliation by acquaintances of the shooting suspect.
Wanting to break through this barrier, Chief Isaac, detective Jennifer Mitsch and Capt. Teresa Theetge used problem-solving techniques they learned in Xavier’s graduate program in Human Resource Development to develop a program that offers support and protection for witnesses of violent crimes. The Witness Support Program, which gets underway in spring 2016, relies on pools of community volunteers who advocate for witnesses and are provided tools to make their court experience more tolerable.
“It’s something that we see that could really make a difference to overcome that ‘no snitch’ mentality that is pervasive in some of our communities,” Chief Isaac says. “Sometimes just providing volunteers to empower the witness during the trial process is what’s needed. There’s safety in numbers.”
Witnesses often have no transportation to get to court, or they need day care. They miss work while waiting to testify. There’s nothing to eat, and if they walk the halls, they’re often stared down or pictures are taken of them and posted to Facebook.
“We’ve seen where defendants have people arrive on their behalf and line the hallways and sit in court and take photos of witnesses and jurors intimidating them,” Mitsch says. “Our witnesses are on their own. Until we call them in the room, they’re waiting in the hallway or in a room we have for them where there’s nothing to do, and at the end of the day, if it doesn’t work out, they have to come back tomorrow.”
As a result, up to 70 percent of homicides in Cincinnati go unsolved even though the perpetrator is known, Mitsch says.
Kelsie’s death on April 4, 2015, became one too many for the detectives. Kelsie, a student at Purcell Marion High School, was attending a Sweet 16 birthday party and dance at a local YMCA. She was standing outside with friends, waiting to be picked up, when someone not associated with the party started shooting. She and two other students got hit. Kelsie was the only one to die of her injuries.
“She was an innocent bystander and got caught in the crossfire,” Mitsch says. “There were about 100 people out there, and not one person will come forward to testify in court about what they saw.”
They decided they had to do something and realized that the only way to address the issue is to change the experiences of witnesses who testify. The new program assigns volunteers to each witness to stay in touch throughout the investigation and court process, arrange for transportation, and stay with them during trial. Meals will be provided each day, as well as companionship, so when they enter the courthouse and walk into the courtroom, they are never alone.
Isaac was impressed with the way they used the management processes from their HRD courses to develop the witness program. Isaac, who graduates in May 2016, worked with Mitsch, Class of 2014, and Theetge, Class of 2015, on the program. “We were able to talk in terms and language we learned from going through the HRD program. The process of storyboarding and techniques from the HRD program were utilized.”
The city is providing $200,000 to get the program started, and they’re researching other funding to keep it going. As there are no other cities with similar programs, Mitsch hopes Cincinnati’s becomes a model. But for her, the real goal is “justice for Kelsie and all the others like her.”