Toronto MP Olivia Chow is calling on the federal government to strengthen the witness protection program after police last week announced murder charges against a man in the Danzig shooting case and appealed for more witnesses to come forward.
Chow, the NDP MP for the downtown riding of Trinity-Spadina, said police forces across Canada have been demanding an expanded federal witness program for several years.
“There’s a provincial witness protection program but if it’s a federal prosecution like drug-related murders...the RCMP runs a program but they charge full cost recovery. It’s very expensive,” Chow said.
“The local police have been saying since 2007 that it would be great if the federal government can come on side and have an agreement with the local police forces and make sure that it’s not so expensive.”
The RCMP witness protection program assessed 108 people but took in just 30 at a cost of $9.1 million in the 2011-2012 fiscal year. Only four of the protectees accepted came from other law enforcement agencies.
Toronto police spokesman Mark Pugash said the force is “exploring ways” to improve services offered to witnesses.
“We are very mindful of the concerns that some people have for not coming forward, and we’re trying to do whatever we can to improve and increase the services that we can offer to witnesses to reassure them so that they can come forward with confidence.”
Police use a variety of approaches when protecting witnesses.
“It might be going to a different school, living in a different area,” Pugash said. “It doesn’t always require what most people assume to be witness protection, but assessments are made on what is most appropriate under the circumstances.”
Liberal MP John McKay (Scarborough-Guildwood) said changes to criminal procedures could also help protect witnesses.
“Within 35 days of the case, the crown has to disclose their entire witness list and then the trial doesn’t necessarily happen for six months or a year or two, so for all of that period of time, the potential witness lives in the community, presumably beside or near or at least known to the accused,” McKay said.
“Either the time period (should be) shortened or you could have an exemption from disclosure, disclose in a non-identifying fashion.”
McKay, in whose riding Danzig Street is located, said the “chief problem” with the witness protection program is that “not everyone wants to go to Saskatchewan to live for the rest of their lives.”
Conservative MP Corneliu Chisu (Pickering-Scarborough East) didn’t address the issue specifically when asked about the witness protection program at an event in Scarborough earlier this week. “We introduced several pieces of legislation calling for tougher sentences for people involved in gang violence,” he said.
Shyanne Charles, 14, and Joshua Yasay, 23, were killed and 24 others were hurt during a gang-related shootout at a barbecue at a townhouse complex on Danzig Street on July 16.
Shaquan Mesquito, 18, aka Bam Bam, has been charged with two counts of first-degree murder, one count of attempted murder, 23 counts of aggravated assault and one count of reckless discharge of a firearm.
Last week, police also released composite sketches of two persons of interest in the case.
Anyone with information on the Danzig shooting is asked to call Det. Sgt. Peter Trimble at 416-808-7394, Det. Sgt. Graham Gibson at 416-808-7405 or Crime Stoppers anonymously at 416-222-TIPS (8477).