Law-enforcement officials in Suffolk County are pushing for more money to protect victims and witnesses of violent crimes who testify in court, saying the current funding levels leave them running out of money every year.
One lawmaker says Boston legislators hope to double the budget next year, calling the witness protection program "vital" and deserving of full funding.
Boston police say the program as it is currently funded leaves them unable to assist everyone who needs it.
"There's not enough funding to help these witnesses get out of these areas that are kind of on fire," said John M. Brown, deputy superintendent of the Criminal Investigations Division for the Boston Police Department. "It's definitely becoming a huge issue, almost citywide, in these violent crimes."
When people witness a crime, he said, they are often too terrified to talk until they know they can be moved out of the neighborhood to a safe place.
The fund often covers expenses as simple as first and last month's rent or moving costs, he said — and the sense of security it provides can help investigators break a case.
"There's nothing more powerful than a witness who sits [on] the stand and is able to provide information that they know, they saw, they heard," Brown said. "Ultimately, if we can get a witness who can sit in the chair and point and say, 'That's the guy that did it,' that's the greatest goal, that's the best possible evidence."
Law-enforcement officials hope that with a new governor coming into the State House, the fund will get renewed attention. A spokesman for Governor-elect Charlie Baker said the issue deserves close consideration.
"Protecting witnesses and victims of crimes is a hugely important facet to public safety and Governor-elect Baker will work closely with the district attorneys and law-enforcement officials to ensure they have the resources they need to do their jobs," Baker spokesman Tim Buckley said in a statement.
The witness protection fund, a statewide fund administered through the Executive Office of Public Safety and Security, started in 2006 with $1 million, according to the office.
This fiscal year, which began July 1, the fund was budgeted for $94,245 — but law-enforcement officials have already spent more than half, according to the office. Much of the money is spent in Suffolk County, but it is available to other counties in Massachusetts.
"In the first year it was available, Suffolk County used more than $400,000 to protect victims and witnesses. And today, we are competing with the rest of the state for less than a quarter of that amount," said Jake Wark, a spokesman for Suffolk District Attorney Daniel F. Conley's office. "Our request and our need is constant. And we have met recently with legislators, and we will make the same overtures to the incoming governor and incoming attorney general."
Wark said the county has never and will never leave a critical witness in fear, "but we are limited by the amount of funding available to us."
Essex District Attorney Jonathan Blodgett, who is president of the Massachusetts District Attorneys Association, called the fund "invaluable."
"For this reason, we have requested additional funding for the fund," he said in a statement.
State Representative Russell E. Holmes said the Boston delegation will get next year's budget in January, and it plans to recommend doubling the fund.
"I view it as something vital and something we will fully fund," said Holmes. "I'm in full agreement with the belief that the district attorney has that we should protect people who are willing to put themselves in danger for the betterment of their community."
Holmes said a breakdown in communication meant legislators were unaware that the fund was not sufficient to meet the needs of law enforcement.
"The funding had been shrinking, really, because the delegation hadn't known this was an inadequate amount of money, and so it hadn't been given the priority it should have been given," he said.
For the most part, Brown said, witnesses are not being moved out of state — just out of their neighborhoods. Each case typically has several witnesses, he said.
In fiscal years 2010 and 2011, according to the most recent report available, the Witness Protection Board received 102 petitions for protection. Each petition typically protects two or three people, Wark said, including the witness and family members.
In recent years, the fund has run out before the fiscal year was over at the end of June, leaving law-enforcement officials scrambling to cover witness protection costs or forcing them to stop filing witness protection petitions entirely.
Last year, the fund ran out in April, according to the Executive Office of Public Safety and Security. Law-enforcement officials statewide found themselves unable to petition for witness protection services for three months.
The fund ran out again in March, and this time, according to the office, officials dipped into the next fiscal year's budget. When the current fiscal year began, according to the office, officials were already down by $40,050.
"With fewer protection dollars available, we have to be very careful in allocating those funds," Wark said.
Boston has had 48 homicides so far this year and 34 of those were committed with a gun, according to Boston police statistics. As of Nov. 9, the city had 160 nonfatal shootings.
Outdoor shootings with no witnesses, Wark said, are the single hardest type of killing to solve because the shooter does not leave fingerprints or DNA and often is not caught on video.
"What we are left with, unless the perpetrator is apprehended shortly after, and in close proximity to, the crime, is a case that can only be solved with witnesses. There is no substitute," Wark said. "Witnesses are more likely to come forward or testify at trial when they know they'll be safe, and the witness protection fund lets us make that promise."