Safe-house plan for police informers

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PLANS for a national network of safe houses for informers are being considered by senior police officers.

The moves are part of a wider strategy aimed at coping with the increasing problem of how to tackle threats and violence against witnesses to crime.

Seven forces run their own protection units for the small number of informers and witnesses who are at risk of violence and even death. A further 12 forces are believed to have specialist protection officers. In extreme cases witnesses can be relocated and even given a new identity. The Association of Chief Police Officers (Acpo) is considering a national network of safe houses or expert officers which forces could contact for help. Best practice guidelines are also being compiled.

The potential dangers of an informer or witnesses having his cover blown was revealed in February when James Lawson, 40, was shot dead as he sat in his home in Hook, Hampshire. Mr Lawson, a police informer, was apparently the victim of a contract killing.

It is believed that he had been moved to the area for his own safety after giving evidence against drug dealers at an Old Bailey trial in 1988, but his true identity was discovered after he bragged about his past.

Among the measures being considered to help combat low level intimidation of witnesses is the greater availability of electronic protection, such as fitting alarms in homes, hidden cameras and listening bugs, and providing mobile phones to call for help in emergencies. The problem is particularly acute for those living on housing estates or in close knit communities.

Assistant Chief Constable Norman Bettison, of West Yorkshire police, who is heading the Acpo working group, said: "We are concerned about the general atmosphere of fear that exists in some of the housing estates in the country.

"The reason for the concern is that not only is it vital that people can help us as witnesses, but also where you have residents who are in fear of yobs it tends to encourage more crime.

"It's more often intimidation, rather than actual damage or physical violence. The most powerful thing we can do is to mobilise the determination not to be oppressed."

On the question of more serious threats, he said: "The higher level of intimidation is where major criminals are making serious threats to witnesses. This is happening more, but it is not widespread."