The NDP is calling on the federal government to expand its witness protection program, saying the country needs a more robust system to encourage people to help solve major crimes.
Toronto MP Olivia Chow made the demand two days after a man was charged in a gangland shootout that killed two innocent bystanders at a summer block party. Witnesses in that case would likely be the responsibility of the province, which prosecutes most homicide cases, but Ms. Chow said street violence is also a federal concern, as it often involves international drug trafficking and links to organized crime.
“Whether it’s federal prosecutions or provincial prosecutions, the police should be able to get support,” she said. “If they can offer the support and the protection, then you deal with the fear and the intimidation. You remove that factor, you can build trust and you can break the wall of silence.”
In the wake of the block party shooting last July, Toronto Police Chief Bill Blair and his investigators repeatedly appealed for locals to help them.
Shaquan (Bam Bam) Mesquito, 18, was charged with 27 offences Wednesday, including two counts of first-degree murder.
Near the scene of the gunfight, on east Toronto’s Danzig Street, one woman said witnesses have to break the code of silence to put killers behind bars. She said her own son was shot dead in a different townhouse complex five years ago, a killing that remains unsolved.
“You can imagine being here and seeing this happen over again,” she said. “I’m still waiting for answers for my son.”
For the year ending last March, the federal witness protection program considered admitting 108 people, and ultimately took 30. The system cost a little over $9-million. The protected people were mostly witnesses in RCMP cases, but also included people involved in investigations by other forces.
The office of Public Safety Minister Vic Toews, who oversees the RCMP, did not comment directly on Ms. Chow’s request for more funding when contacted by the Globe. Instead, his spokesman released a written statement attacking the NDP for not supporting the Conservative government’s other crime-related legislation.
Complaints about inadequacies in the country’s protection programs have surfaced from time to time in court. In one 2009 case, for instance, a man enrolled in both the Ontario and federal programs had to wait nearly a year and a half before receiving a birth certificate for his new identity and more than two years before he was issued a passport, a judge found.
One expert said federal funding for witness protection is “paltry,” while local police don’t have much room in their budgets to do it themselves. But getting people to come forward will take more than simply beefing up the program, he argued.
“There’s just not a lot of money to go around and at the same time, for some witnesses, not a lot of willingness to go down that path,” said Michael Chettleburgh, a consultant and author of Young Thugs, a book about Canadian street gangs. “It’s a pretty high price for someone to pay, to pick up and leave their family behind and assume a new identity.”
Mr. Chettleburgh suggested other measures to help witnesses, such as increasing the penalty for intimidating them and allowing anonymous testimony.