The RCMP is retooling its witness protection program following a secret internal review that called for changes to enrolment decision-making and better reporting on the program's impact.
The changes come less than two years after a full-scale overhaul of the program prompted by high-profile controversies.
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The federal witness program, administered by the RCMP, is seen as a key tool in the fight against terrorism and organized crime. It shields people who help authorities by providing everything from short-term protection to permanent relocation and identity changes.
Protectees may be victims, informants, witnesses or others threatened with intimidation or violence. Protection is available to those referred from any police service in Canada, foreign agencies and other federal departments involved in national security or defence.
In 2014-15, the $9.6-million program admitted 23 protectees, all of whom were granted a secure name change.
Program kept separate from investigative unit
The program was thrust into the headlines several years ago when it emerged that a protectee committed a murder while enrolled. Some members have sued over their treatment, while others have been kicked out.
In 2010, a federal inquiry into the 1985 Air India bombing said it was inappropriate for a police agency with an interest in ensuring sources agree to become witnesses to also make decisions about admission into a witness protection program.
As a result, legislative changes that took effect in November 2014 walled off the program from the RCMP's investigative units. The Mounties also introduced new training, standardized procedures and a "psycho-social assessment" to determine whether possible protectees are a good fit.
Still, five people were told to leave the program in 2014-15, while three protectees filed lawsuits.
Possible improvements highlighted
The RCMP's deputy commissioner for federal policing ordered the review to see whether the program was effectively handling admission and management of clients.
Given the sensitivity of some information in the report, the Mounties decided not to publish it.
However, internal records obtained by The Canadian Press under the Access to Information Act show the review found:
- the witness protection program has "undertaken considerable efforts" to address the concerns identified by the Air India inquiry and the House of Commons committee on public safety and national security;
- opportunities to improve the management of cases, including deliberations on who gets into the program;
- and a need for new ways to report on the results achieved and their impact.
Senior RCMP management has signed off on the report, including various recommendations to strengthen the program.
"Work is now underway to implement the action plan," said RCMP Const. Annie Delisle, a force spokeswoman. She declined to elaborate on the steps being taken.
Last year a federal advisory committee reported that the witness protection program was "on the right track" following its legislative transformation. However, the committee suggested, among other things, that the program build on its efforts to better accommodate people of various ethno-cultural backgrounds, including aboriginals, and that it usher in cultural sensitivity training.
It appears the witness program will also be scrutinized by the RCMP watchdog, as the initiative is "one of several areas that we intend on examining in due course," said Tim Cogan, a spokesman for the Civilian Review and Complaints Commission for the RCMP.
However, he added, the commission wants the RCMP to have "sufficient time to implement its action plan" before any review takes place.