Police stress need for witnesses

BY NICOLE KARLIS | JUNE 10, 2009 7:28 AM

One Iowa City police official considers a witness as vital as the physical evidence when investigating a case.

But despite a year of numerous fatal accidents and violent crimes, officers see a discouraging trend among college students: They fear the police and therefore hesitate to report incidents and come forward as a witness.

“People don’t understand the seriousness of what they had just observed … or sometimes they just don’t want to get involved,” said Iowa City police Lt. Jim Steffen.

Noting the fear of potential witnesses who may be drunk, he said he and his fellow officers are most interested in the details of what happened.

In the case of crime investigation, “underage drinking is something we are not interested in,” Steffen said.

It is not always the witness who hesitates to speak up, however. Sometimes it is the victim, who may want to avoid creating a hassle for potential witnesses.

When UI junior Kyle Trautvetter was badly injured in a fight last fall, he said, he decided not to involve the police right away because he didn’t realize how serious the situation was at the time.

“I just wanted to move past it,” he said. “I didn’t want to have to involve all the witnesses who were there … I didn’t want to have to go to court [while] doing school and stuff.”

He still has not called the police.

But other UI students said they would report a crime they witnessed.

“It’s better to get someone in trouble than let them get hurt,” UI junior Alli Patch said.

Graduate student Andy Kass said he was inspired by reports of male-on-male violence. He recalled an incident on Burlington in particular, saying the victim “almost got beat to death.”

In May 2008, UI student Brian LaGro was attacked on Burlington Street and nearly killed by blows to his head. The case remains unsolved.

Iowa City police Sgt. Troy Kelsay recommends cell phones as a good tool witnesses can use.

“You don’t have to physically intervene, and you can always request to be anonymous,” he said.

While police are trying to open all lines of communication, some question whether additional reporting options — such as text messaging and e-mails — are necessary. The Iowa City police encourage people to take responsibility if they witness crime.

Kelsay said: “If something were to happen to you, you would want someone else in your community to report it.”

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