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Witnessing a Crime, Do You Know What to Do?

Vincent Desjardins, Flickr

Some people are upset with Milwaukee District Attorney John Chisholm for not filing charges in connection with the death of a West Allis teen. Corey Stingley died after he was caught shoplifting and three customers detained him. The DA found no proof they intended to harm the 16-year-old. The decision comes just days after a Milwaukee County bus driver got his job back. He’d been fired for trying to break up a domestic violence situation on the street; many people called him a hero. But what should you do if you see a crime in progress?

Wisconsin’s laws often protect people who step in when a crime is being committed, according to Stan Stojkovic. He’s a criminal justice professor at UW-Milwaukee.

“If you do something, we do have in the state of Wisconsin and a number of other states what is known as the good Samaritan law that says you can intervene. Now from a legal perspective, that protects you against any liability if you intervene,” Stojkovic says.

Unless you cross the line.

“Typically, each case is handled on a case by case approach. And so the district attorney looks at the facts and says boy, is there enough evidence here to indicate a crime was committed by anyone. Were people acting in reasonably good faith? Was there any evidence that would indicate they had gone beyond what a reasonable person would expect them to do in that kind of situation?” Stojkovic says.

Stojkovic says it’s probably best if most people shy away from intervening because of the lack of training and understanding of how the law is applied. Officer Bobby Lindsey of the Milwaukee Police Department agrees.

“The first thing is we don’t want people to automatically take the natural reaction which some people have which would be to immediately get involved. That could be problematic,” Lindsey says.

Lindsey’s job includes educating people about what to do if they see someone suspicious or a crime in progress. He says besides ensuring your own safety and calling the police, people should take mental notes, so they can serve as a witness.

“Really a good description, description of the actors that are involved. And that could be gender, height, weight, clothing. Just a variety of different factors that you would use to describe someone that you’re seeing,” Lindsey says.

Lindsey says because crimes can unfold quickly, it’s important to think about how you would react.

While he hopes people call police and serve as witnesses, some residents won’t get involved – even with such crimes as car break-ins and prostitution, according Patricia Ruiz. She’s with the Southside Organizing Committee.

“What we find is that a lot of people tend not to call the police because they’re afraid or because they have lost hope and believe that nothing’s going to be done. So our message is to call,” Ruiz says.