12/02/2012 01:11 EST | Updated 02/01/2013 05:12 EST

Witness Protection Program: Allow Youth Gang Members In, RCMP Says


OTTAWA - Youth gang members — not just mobsters, bikers and other traditional protectees — should be allowed into the federal witness protection program as part of a sweeping modernization, says the RCMP.

The Mounties are also embracing intensive psychological examination of potential protectees, a national support centre for the secretive program, and an external advisory board to serve as a watchdog.

The changes are spelled out in a detailed RCMP blueprint for reforming witness protection with assistance from the federal Public Safety Department and the provinces.

Although the paper was completed in May 2010, it was released only now to The Canadian Press under the Access to Information Act.

RCMP spokeswoman Laurence Trottier — while providing few details — confirmed that at least some changes have already been introduced. She added that the witness protection program "continues to rapidly evolve."

The program, administered by the Mounties, provides measures ranging from short-term protection to permanent relocation and identity changes. The RCMP spent more than $9 million on the program in 2011-12.

Revelations five years ago that a protectee committed murder while in the program triggered a review and discussion that continues to this day.

The federal government has been working for years on revamping the witness protection regime following recommendations from a Commons committee, an inquiry into the 1985 Air India bombing and extensive consultations with the provinces.

Several provinces have their own witness protection programs, but often they provide only short-term assistance. In addition, obtaining new federal identity documents for protectees requires co-operation with the Mounties.

The RCMP paper says whether the provinces opt for their own programs or not, the Mounties must ensure its witness protection services are "better able to respond to current challenges" such as street and youth gang violence.

As a result, the Mounties propose the admission criteria for the federal program be expanded to accommodate "a broader spectrum of eligible witnesses," says the paper.

"While this is a shift from our current practice, it is based on sound principles," says the document.

"This position also demonstrates our willingness to assist our municipal police colleagues who are struggling with ever increasing violence within their communities."

A review of best practices and consultations with other countries revealed that the use of psychologists would "greatly assist" in determining whether someone was suitable for protection and possible relocation, says the blueprint.

"The creation of a protocol to evaluate the psycho-social personality traits of the protectees is considered an essential element in the admission process."

It would help the RCMP predict future criminal or anti-social behaviour and evaluate the capacity of the person and their family members to adapt to the witness program, says the paper.

In an effort to ease the transition, the RCMP also proposes creation of a national orientation centre where new protectees would have access to social workers, financial advisers, health specialists, cultural experts, psychologists and specially trained legal personnel.

"Information sessions will educate protectees on the challenges of adjusting to new identities, integration into a new community, personal security, and the myriad of social issues that they may face."

The centre is a "crucial element" that will allow the RCMP and federal government to sustain public scrutiny and be able to say that the best possible efforts have been made to administer this "high-risk, high-liability program," the paper adds.

The Air India commission said it was a conflict of interest for a police agency with a stake in ensuring sources agree to become witnesses to also make decisions about admission into a witness protection program.

The RCMP says greater independence in admission decisions can be achieved through measures like the psychological assessment and consultation with the prosecutor assigned to the file, to weigh the value of the witness's evidence.

The paper recommends the program be overseen by an independent advisory committee that may include representatives of the police and legal community as well as the corrections, mental health and medical spheres.

In addition to "bolstering public confidence," the committee would make recommendations to the RCMP commissioner, lobby for amendments to legislation, address conflicts with the provinces and respond to public inquiries, adds the blueprint.

"We must ensure that the public maintains its confidence in the way the program is administered."

The RCMP paper says officials rejected the idea of combining the various witness programs across the country under one umbrella. "There was a concern that such a model would encroach on the provincial responsibility for the administration of justice."

There would also be a component of the federal program dedicated to "providing an optimum level of service to our provincial partners," says the paper.

Though the Conservative government hasn't yet come forward with changes to the legislation that governs the witness program, nor an independent advisory committee, it has committed to simplifying the process of obtaining documents needed to give someone a new name.

It has also promised better training for co-ordinators and handlers of protectees and introduction of changes to ensure "more transparency and accountability" concerning decisions as to who gets into the witness program.

The RCMP's Trottier said significant changes have been made to the training provided to program members to better equip them with advanced skills.

In addition, changes currently being introduced include the use of specialists in the psychological and social fields to ensure the entry of new protectees is "as seamless as possible," she said in an emailed statement.