Police chiefs call for new national system of witness protection

Murder of couple and complaints from 'abandoned' informants prompt review that aims to restore trust. Paul Cahalan reports

senior police officers have proposed creating a national witness-protection scheme to encourage more supergrasses and vulnerable witnesses to come forward to help convict murderers and gang bosses.

The proposals, put forward by the Association of Chief Police Officers (ACPO), follow criticism of police handling of a case which led to the murder of a Lincolnshire couple and concerns from former police informants who said witness protection left them "isolated and abandoned".

The ACPO believes a new service, which would cover Britain under the newly announced National Crime Agency (NCA), which reports to the Home Office, would improve the service while reducing cost.

Crucially, the proposal recommends divorcing witness protection from local police forces – significantly reducing any potential conflicts of interest or allegations of collusion – and would be headed by a senior chief constable.

The scheme, which could be in place when the NCA becomes operational in 2013, would see police employed or seconded by the NCA. The agency replaces the Serious Organised Crime Agency and will take national responsibility for organised crime, border policing, economic crime and child protection.

Other measures to increase transparency include making it easier for people in witness protection to make complaints, an independent oversight and review process and a declaration of the minimum obligations expected from authorities and witnesses.

The review was headed by Andy Cooke, the assistant chief constable of Lancashire Police, who worked closely with the Ministry of Justice and Home Office.

"Britain is the only country in Western Europe without a national witness protection scheme and you need a system that people have faith in," Mr Cooke said. "We had a patchwork response across the country where levels of protection differed. Witness protection is underused and if there was a national service people would be encouraged to use it."

Specialised regional teams would be able to visit vulnerable witnesses more easily, Mr Cooke said, adding it would "be more responsive to needs of individuals".

Currently about 200 police officers are involved in the "highly specialised and risky" witness protection work.

In the year to April, there were 763 witness protection cases involving 1,400 people. A case can involve putting entire families into protection.

The ACPO estimates that up to 10 per cent of its witness protection cases currently involve supergrasses, but sources admit that the number should be a lot higher. The new scheme would engender more trust and could help catch more senior criminals.

Witness protection cost police in England and Wales £17m last year and Mr Cooke believes efficiencies would "conservatively save about 10 per cent". But, he said, the new scheme was about "improving service not reducing costs.

"I'm of the opinion this will provide a better service for people coming into the scheme," he said. "There will be a consistent approach and level playing field across the UK. Undoubtedly, it will increase security for those in the scheme."

The review was born out of recognition of inconsistencies in services currently provided by police forces and was informed by recommendations made by the coroner at the inquest of Joan and John Stirland.

The couple were shot in retaliation for a shooting by Mrs Stirland's son, Michael O'Brien, who was convicted for killing the nephew of a well known gangster in Nottingham.

One of the coroner's criticisms of police was that the same force, Nottinghamshire, was protecting the couple and investigating the case – leaving police to decide whether to allocate a budget to either protection or investigation and the system open to abuse.

Mr Cooke said the inquiry "focused minds" and added the new scheme would address concerns levelled by the StopSnitching group – which leafleted streets after murders and shootings in south London urging people not to speak to police.

Originally thought to be the work of gangs, it emerged that those behind the leaflets were former police informants with bad experiences of witness protection. One of the group claimed he felt "isolated and abandoned". He said his complaints went unanswered by the officers who put them in witness protection.

After hearing about the proposal, he said: "This is a positive first step but the crucial point is making sure there is someone independent to complain to. If there is, the service will be much better."

Under the new system ACPO is suggesting, someone independent – perhaps a retired judge or probation officer – would oversee complaints.

Mr Cooke said: "The scheme addresses their [Stopsnithcing's] concerns with greater emphasis on protection rather than policing."

The proposed scheme has been agreed in principle by the ACPO cabinet and must now be approved by chief constables on the ACPO council before being scrutinised by the Home Office and Ministry of Justice.

The current sticking point for the ACPO is funding, with Mr Cooke now having to convince local forces, which currently pay for witness protection separately and are battling funding cuts, to finance the scheme.

Couple who were shot dead after fleeing attacks

Joan and John Stirland were shot in a chalet in the seaside resort of Trusthorpe, Lincolnshire, on 8 August 2004. A bounty had been on their head since Michael O'Brien, Mrs Stirland's son, shot dead Marvyn Bradshaw on 30 August, 2003. O'Brien was subsequently convicted of Bradshaw's murder.

In what appears to have been a reprisal attack, on 14 September 2003 gunmen fired shots at the Stirlands' home in Nottingham, causing them to flee the city. They were offered places in a witness protection scheme but turned it down, although the family disputed that they had refused.

Mr and Mrs Stirland were found when a BT worker gave out the couple's address. On the day they died, the pair made two phone calls to police complaining about a prowler, but were shot dead by men dressed in boiler suits.

In June 2006, Colin Gunn and two other men were found guilty of conspiracy to murder. Before his arrest Gunn used a trainee detective, Charles Fletcher, to find out how close police were to catching him. Fletcher was jailed for seven years.

In 2008, an Independent Police Complaints Commission investigation concluded Mr and Mrs Stirland were not given adequate protection by Nottinghamshire Police, who did not appropriately investigate the shooting on 14 September 2003.

The investigation also said Nottinghamshire Police did not supply Lincolnshire Police with enough information concerning the threat against Mr and Mrs Stirland, or the number of reprisal attacks that had taken place.

It also said there was a failure by officers to engage officers with expertise in witness protection in this case. Nottinghamshire Police later introduced a dedicated Witness Support Unit.

In August 2010 Nottinghamshire Police made a public apology to the family for their failings in the case.

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