Eyewitness Blues

Seeing a crime was bad enough. Helping the police was a nightmare.

Two and a half hours later, on her way back from a trip to the bathroom, she spied her roommate waiting for her in the precinct lobby. When she tried to hug him, an officer interrupted— "You can't do that"— and ordered her back into the holding room. Sophie's roommate demanded, "What kind of crime am I committing by hugging her?" The cop didn't answer. Sophie asked if her roommate could wait with her. The officer said no. Sophie's roommate was incredulous, urging her to leave the police station. "If I can't even talk to you, how can I leave?" Sophie asked, as the cop ushered her back into the room.

As time went on, Sophie's principal preoccupation became food. She had long since used up whatever cash she had in the room's solitary vending machine— as had most folks being held. The police had delivered buttered rolls at 9 a.m., but by 4 p.m. Sophie was famished. "You can't hold us here without feeding us," she said, pleading with the guard. "Can't I at least make a phone call to my roommate so he can bring me some food?" The cop said no. Desperate, Sophie began screaming, "You're keeping us like caged animals. We have no way of eating unless you feed us, we have no way of leaving unless you let us. We have no way of making phone calls— even to our bosses— and we're jeopardizing our jobs. Is this justice?" Then she began crying, "How can I put this to you in a way you can understand? I need food; we need to eat."

At 6 p.m., a cop who was going off duty relented and brought the group of witnesses a pizza.

At 9:30 p.m. a new guard allowed Sophie to make a phone call. She called her roommate, interrupting a Super Bowl party going on at her house, sobbing and screaming into the phone, "I'm just here because I was trying to help. They're keeping me like a prisoner." A couple of officers walking around the station took notice of her breakdown.

"I was pretty much accusing them of holding me wrongfully," Sophie recalls. "So immediately a cop came over to me and said the detectives were going to be down any minute to question me. 'Why don't you go into the bathroom and wash up?' "

An hour later, at 10:30 p.m.— approximately 21 hours after Sophie first offered to give a statement— she met with detectives. "How long you been here?" one asked. She told them. "They were shocked. 'You've been here that long?' " They said she must have "fallen through the cracks" and apologized: "Sometimes when it's homicide and gang intelligence and the local police force, when we all come together it's just not that organized." Sophie concurred, "That's pretty apparent."

At 11:30 p.m., after giving her statement for the second time, she was released.

A police department spokesperson, Gerry Falcon, confirms that Sophie was "held for an extended period of time" but explains that this was due to the large number of people involved: "In an effort to sort out who were perpetrators and who were witnesses, it took a while." Before being asked, Falcon added, "You should know she was fed, though."

When Sophie's situation was described to him, civil rights attorney Ron Kuby called it "illegal detention." Grand juries can compel witnesses to testify, and judges can order that crucial witnesses be held in custody if prosecutors feel they may flee, but police have none of these rights. "Of course, as a practical matter— being men with guns— they can do anything they like," Kuby says, observing that cases like Sophie's happen fairly frequently.

"This violates the constitutional rights of the witness herself to be free from police intimidation when making a statement," Kuby says. And there is an additional danger. "Eventually, your inclination is to tell police what they want to hear— or to identify a particular person you never actually got a good look at— just so you can go home." Kuby is emphatic: "It's a practice that serves the interest of no one."

Sophie, who had told the police all along that she was willing to return to the precinct for further questioning whenever detectives summoned her (she lived only a few blocks away) was called back in the following day. She showed up, as requested, and gave another statement.

While she may yet be called to testify before a grand jury or a trial, Sophie says she has learned her lesson. "The only thing this taught me is to never, ever say you are a witness to anything; don't ever cooperate with the cops because they will not cooperate with you. And that is not the kind of person I was before this happened."

Sophie has already had an opportunity to put this lesson to the test. "I actually saw a guy get hit by a car last weekend and called an ambulance." She pauses. "I called the ambulance, and then I just walked away."

*Sophie's name has been changed; police advised her that gang members might retaliate if they learned her identity.

Research assistance by Hillary Chute

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