Mounties must respect independence of witness protection program, advisory panel says

An expert committee says it is "troubled" that RCMP investigators continue to contact people in the federal witness protection program, which may affect their safety.

Committee also says staff over-worked, under-resourced and urges RCMP to hire more people

A report on the RCMP's witness protection program says while the program has made strides in moving towards a protectee-focused case management model, RCMP investigators sometimes still contact witnesses under protection, putting their safety at risk. (CBC News)

An expert committee says it is "troubled" that RCMP investigators continue to contact people in the federal witness protection program, which may affect the safety of those being protected.

That's one of several issues highlighted in the annual report of the witness protection program advisory committee, a panel made up of four academics, a former RCMP commissioner and a serving assistant commissioner.

Separating the RCMP's role in protecting witnesses from its investigative interests is a key element in reforming the program, which was overhauled by legislation passed in 2014.

In its report, the advisory committee said that while some resistance to that independence was expected, it has since manifested itself openly in various parts of the federal police force.

"It troubled the committee to learn that after a witness is referred to the WPP, the witness management unit or investigators sometimes continue contact with protectees unbeknownst to the WPP, and in some cases perform tasks that fall within the responsibility of the WPP," reads the report.

The committee added that it fears this overlapping of activities could "potentially cause safety and other concerns for the protectee."

The advisers also found problems with the witness management process, which is a suite of techniques used by Mounties outside the program to ensure witnesses testify in court. 

While witness management techniques, such as counselling, are being used across Canada, the committee said it  learned there is only one formal witness management unit, in British Columbia.

"Coincidentally, it is in the only division where witness management issues appear to be in conflict with WPP processes," wrote the advisers.

The witness protection program is used to help fight organized crime and terrorism by shielding people who can provide inside information or testify at trial, and referrals for protection can come from police forces and other federal or even foreign agencies.

Last year, 14 people were admitted to the program.

Employees struggling

The advisory committee report also noted ongoing issues with maintaining adequate records.

"The committee deplores the fact that the program is still experiencing difficulties in ensuring that data on every protectee is adequately captured on the information management system," said the report.

The report goes on to say the incomplete database has hampered efforts to conduct meaningful research on witnesses to crimes.

Last year, 14 people were admitted to Canada's federal witness protection program. (Igor Stevanovic/Shutterstock)

As for those working within the WPP, the advisers found employees are overworked and under-resourced. They urged top brass to hire more people.

The RCMP told CBC News in an email that the federal police force is working to address all of the issues raised by the committee.

It launched a review of its witness management practices last year, is transferring paper records into its protectee database and has already started hiring more people.

"The RCMP acknowledges the resource and workload challenges and has made strides in filling a number of positions over the course of the past six months in particular, with additional positions to be filled going forward," reads the email.

In the spring of 2016, CBC News reported on allegations of harassment inside the unit at national RCMP headquarters in Ottawa. The officer in charge of the unit at that time, then-assistant commissioner Todd Shean, told CBC News he initiated a harassment investigation. 

When asked for an update on that work, the RCMP said it "is not in a position to comment on these investigations as they remain ongoing."

Improvements noted

The committee did take note of some improvements to the program, according to the report.

The advisory committee said the program today is markedly different from what it was a few years ago, when it was scrutinized by the inquiry into the investigation of the bombing of Air India Flight 182 as well as the House of Commons public safety committee.

"The committee believes that the program's movement to a protectee-focused case management model has exceeded expectations," wrote the committee, commending the program for seeking specialized advice from experts in psychology and criminal behaviour. It also praised the RCMP for implementing more robust training for employees working within the WPP.

The annual report noted two departures from the committee. The remaining members are chairperson and University of New Brunswick law professor Jula Hughes, Dr. David Marsh from the Northern Ontario School of Medicine, retired RCMP commissioner Phil Murray, Assistant Commissioner Paula Dionne and University of the Fraser Valley criminology professor Yvan Dandurand.

With a file from The Canadian Press