Bill calling for witness protection could encourage tips in SWFL crimes

FORT MYERS, Fla.- Solving crime in Lee County has proven to be a challenge for law enforcement.

Many crimes remain unsolved, despite police and sheriff’s deputies attempts to gather information from witnesses. Some residents are too afraid to come forward, in fear of retaliation. Trish Routte with Southwest Florida Crime Stoppers is looking to fade that fear.

“Right now in our community, there’s so much apathy. People know information about these crimes, people see these crimes, they’re there when it happens, yet when it comes time to getting information from them… ‘What did you see, what do you know?’ [They say] I didn’t see anything, they all of sudden clam up,” said Routte.

A Tampa legislator’s new proposal could directly combat this issue statewide.

Rep. Ed Narian (D) of Tampa says the “Stop Snitching” culture is plaguing many cities in Florida,

“That culture is keeping a lot of good people from coming out and talking to the police about things they may have seen, so the goal of this bill is to really try and stop that from happening.”

Narain proposed the measure that would protect the identities of witnesses who come forward with information and work with police.

“We have got to get creative,” said Routte. “We have got to find any means possible to make sure that the violent offenders in our community aren’t ruling our community. The good people of Southwest Florida need to rule their community. They need to feel safe in their community, they need to be able to go out and do what they want wherever they want, be it downtown, be it at a park, a mall, wherever and feel safe in that environment.”

If passed, the bill would prohibit the disclosure of personal identifying information, making an exemption from the Florida public records law. The exemption would last until the end of a prosecution period, or the statute of limitations to a crime.

This is not the first time elected officials in Florida have considered granting anonymity to witnesses or tipsters.

Southwest Florida Crime Stoppers offers an anonymous tip line for anyone with information on crimes to call. Routte says operators do not ask for any personal information from callers.

Lee County Sheriff Mike Scott has also spoken out about the lack of tips in many crimes in the area, specifically, violence in the Dunbar area.

He kick-started another anonymous form of delivering tips, by providing community members with pre-stamped envelopes sent directly to his office.

Routte says community members living in fear is unacceptable.

“That mentality that you have to worry about every single move your kids make, are they going to be safe? Are they going to be caught in the middle of a drive-by? That is unacceptable on every level.”

She agrees any method to help tipsters feel safer and more comfortable coming forward could spark an increase in tips.

“We need that mentality to change. We need people to work with law enforcement. We need to work together because separately, we’re not going to solve crimes. Law enforcement needs the community and the community needs law enforcement. It’s a symbiotic relationship. If we work together, we’re going to be able to put these guys behind bars.”

The bill has not been scheduled for a hearing yet.

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