Police hide families of 70 witnesses after threats

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The Independent Online
SEVENTY families of people who were witnesses to crimes have been secretly relocated throughout Britain and abroad because of intimidation by criminals in Manchester, a conference of senior police officers was told yesterday.

The increasing use of firearms by offenders and the rise in murders and gangland drug shootings have prompted the Greater Manchester Police to set up a witness protection unit. Other forces are expected to follow their example - the Metropolitan Police already operates a similar scheme - as intimidation escalates.

In the past two and a half years, the scheme has offered protection to 127 people in 70 trials. Only two of them have failed to give evidence, in cases that have included murder and offences involving drugs and firearms.

The unit, which costs more than pounds 100,000 a year to run, offers witnesses - many of whom are under threat of death - new identities, safe houses and help in moving to new homes.

It takes about three months to relocate a family and some have to move without telling anyone where they have gone. The police promise protection for life if necessary and officers are available 24 hours a day, although the use of permanent bodyguards is rare. A counsellor is available to help witnesses, and the officers protecting them, with stress and psychological problems.

The system was established after three trials in Manchester - costing more than pounds 1m - collapsed, delegates at the Police Superintendents' Association annual conference at Market Bosworth, near Leicester, were told.

In the first case a man who had been attacked with an axe withdrew his evidence in court and claimed he had been injured in a car accident. The second involved a young woman who was a witness to a shooting but did not appear on the day of her court appearance. She was later found in hospital with a drug overdose.

In the third incident, the victim of a murder attempt refused to give evidence in court and was eventually jailed for contempt.

Chief Superintendent David James, of the Greater Manchester force, said intimidation had become severe in his region and that dangerous criminals had created an 'umbrella of fear'. Several police officers had also been the victims of serious intimidation.

Unless greater protection was offered to witnesses, fewer and fewer would come forward. He said the Home Office and other forces should consider expanding the system nationally.

The private security industry revealed yesterday that it hoped to take over at least 17 police functions under a Home Office review.

The police fear the Home Office is about to farm out many of their jobs to save money. They have argued that this will sever their traditional links with the public and harm their ability to fight crime.

Finton O'Toole, the marketing manager of Securicor Security, one of Britain's largest security companies, said Securicor would like to take on many police roles, including monitoring remote surveillance cameras, controlling traffic, escorting abnormal loads, servicing vehicles, acting as custody officers, managing fleet vehicles, licensing vehicles, guarding, manning courts, communications, off-site storage of goods such as stolen property, prison escort work, scientific support and monitoring alarms.

He said: 'If the private sector has a view, yes, we can provide many services more effectively and, in some cases, a lot less expensively than the police force.' However, a motion attacking privatisation was overwhelmingly accepted by the conference delegates.