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Speak out, Philli urges witnesses

By Natalie Pompilio   
Inquirer Staff Writer

In one part of the city's federal complex yesterday, city leaders presented a new initiative - "Step Up, Speak Up" - to encourage witnesses of violent crimes to cooperate with police and prosectors.

In another, jury selection continued in the death-penalty trial of three men accused of murdering a federal witness.

Desperate to stem the problem of witness intimidation, local law enforcement officials are taking new steps to protect those who come forward, including working with the U.S. Justice Department to provide relocation services for witnesses in non-federal cases at no cost to the city.

"We need this to give our people on the front lines one more tool," U.S. Attorney Patrick Meehan said, noting that Philadelphia is only the second metropolitan area - the Bronx is the other - to have such a deal with the Justice Department.

The "Step Up, Speak Up" campaign is more focused on education. It is a direct response to the "Stop Snitching" T-shirts that became popular in the city last summer. The shirts, some of which featured guns and crosshairs, sent the implicit message that cooperation with police could be deadly.

"They are an overt challenge not to speak," said District Attorney Lynne M. Abraham, who noted that the city recorded 380 homicides and about five times as many non-fatal shootings last year.

"This is a terrible penalty we pay for living in a society where the 'don't snitch' culture is overwhelming us," she said.

As part of "Step Up, Speak Up," billboards featuring the photos of victims of unsolved killings will be posted throughout the city. Organizers will distribute pamphlets with helpful phone numbers and information about fighting subtle intimidation like the type seen on the T-shirts. They will also give away "Step Up, Speak Up" T-shirts to youths.

"Soon, we hope we'll see our T-shirts being worn by the people who once wore the other T-shirts," said Ron Hosko, assistant special agent in charge of the FBI's Philadelphia Office.

Witness intimidation has been a continuing challenge for police and prosecutors nationwide and particularly in Philadelphia, where the widely held belief is, "snitches get stitches."

In some ways, the "Step Up, Speak Up" campaign is similar to one undertaken last year in Baltimore, the unofficial birthplace of the "Stop Snitching" movement. There, officials made and distributed a pro-police DVD, and officers began wearing T-shirts that said "Keep talking." The idea, organizers said, was to answer the opposition on every front.

The hardest part of the campaign may be changing minds.

One of the boys participating in yesterday's presentation, 15-year-old Kareem, was wearing a "Step Up, Speak Up" shirt during the news conference.

But he said he would not do so near his North Philadelphia home.

"My neighborhood is negative," he said. "I'm going to get a negative response to this even if they see me on TV with this shirt."

Kareem said that he understood the message officials were trying to send and that, although he respected it, he didn't think people cooperating with police would make much of a difference.

"To be honest," he said, "people snitching will boost the crime rate even more."

 Philadelphia Inquirer (http://www.philly.com/mld/inquirer/)

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