Thousands of dollars in witness protection fund going unused by Missouri law enforcement agencies

Ozarks Politics

JEFFERSON CITY, Mo. — Starting next month, law enforcement agencies and prosecutors could have access to nearly $2 million in hopes of reducing violent crime across the state after lawmakers passed legislation for a witness protection fund last fall. 

During a special session, one of the few things that passed was a Pretrial Witness Protection program for police departments across the state to use. Since the $1 million fund became active earlier this year, only two agencies have utilized it.

Gov. Mike Parson called the special session to reduce violent crime in the state, especially in St. Louis and Kansas City. Sponsor of the legislation in the upper chamber, Sen. Tony Luetkemeyer, R-Parkville, said the witness protection fund was something many agencies across the state requested. 

“It gives resources to police departments and prosecutors to relocate witnesses who have information for somebody that’s on trial for a violent crime,” Luetkemeyer said. “This is really a tool for all cities, but really our larger cities, where there’s an epidemic of violent crime to make sure that they have a cooperating witness who comes forward to provide testimony. 

The Pretrial Witness Protection program allows different law enforcement agencies and prosecuting attorneys to use funds from the Department of Public Safety (DPS) to relocate or protect a witness during a trial. A spokesman for DPS, Mike O’Connell, said the fund became active in February and police departments were able to be reimbursed for any expenditures dating back to Oct. 1, 2020. 

“Oftentimes, whenever you’re dealing with violent criminals, people will be intimidated from coming forward and testifying because they think someone might come to harm them or their family,” Luetkemeyer said. 

Luetkemeyer, who practices law in Kansas City, said most violent offenders who are released back into the community will commit another crime. 

“A lot of the crime that we see in St. Louis and Kansas City are repeat offenders that are out in the street at large and are not behind bars, and so what this program does. It ensures more cooperating witnesses will come forward, which means higher convention rates for prosecutors.”

Lawmakers approved $1 million for the fund earlier this year in the supplemental budget, but so far, less than $300 has been spent. 

According to DPS, the Kansas City Police Department has spent $116 in shelter expenses. The department submitted the receipt back in March and was reimbursed at the end of April. St. Louis City Police have also been approved to use less than $100 for security measures related to protecting a citizen. 

“It would be premature to pull the plug on it right now,” Luetkemeyer said. “This is something that until late last year wasn’t even something that was available to these police departments.”

The DPS website lists the requirements agencies must follow in order to be applicable for the fund. 

  • The crime must have been committed in Missouri or the crime victims must be a resident of Missouri
  • The crime must have involved the threat or the use of force or violence
  • The victim/witness of the crime cannot be the perpetrator or accessory involved in the crime
  • Injuries sustained by the victim/witness cannot be a result of the operation of a motor vehicle, boat or airplane unless the same was used as a weapon, or a result of the crime of driving while intoxicated or vehicular manslaughter. 
  • Services must be provided free of charge to victim/witness
  • Provision of services shall not be contingent upon the victim offering testimony in a judicial or law enforcement matter

In order to use the fund, agencies are required to submit their receipts and then are reimbursed. Currently only six police departments have applied to use the fund. 

  • Kansas City Board of Police Commissioners
  • Missouri State Highway Patrol
  • Smithville, PD
  • St. Louis County, PD
  • St. Louis Metro Police Department
  • Vinita Park Police Department

“Part of that is maybe a lack of publicity around the fund,” Luetkemeyer said. “I think we need to go adequate time for our law enforcement groups who requested this fund to be able to access it.”

The legislation had bipartisan support in both chambers. In the budget lawmakers sent to the governor’s desk in May, there’s another $1 million headed towards the fund if Parson approves it. 

DPS did not want to go on camera for this story but said they are working to raise more awareness to agencies about the fund. 

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