Assistant Commissioner of Police Anthony James, who is in charge of the Homicide Investigations Bureau, says people in the witness protection programme are demanding specific conditions in return for their testimony, a situation which places a heavy strain on an already overburdened Justice Protection Unit.
“Part of the challenge we face, is that witnesses are sort of bargaining and negotiating,” James said at a recent forum hosted by the Victim and Witness Support Unit (VWSU) at the National Racquet Centre in Tacarigua. The forum, titled Confronting Fear: Managing Life After A Violent Crime, sought to offer strategies to people to cope after falling victim to crime.
James said although the Justice Protection Unit provides safe houses in TT, parts of the Caribbean and North America, the latter destination has been increasingly the preferred choice among witnesses. “Somehow, some of our witnesses are seeking a preferred place of safety and solitude in far away areas like the US and Canada.”
James said the VWSU has a vital role to play in managing the relationship between witnesses and police officers in the Justice Protection Unit.
“Sometimes you find officers becoming grossly involved with issues of the witnesses and so getting personally attached to some of them. This compromises even the safety of the witness and the officer. Therefore, we need to have intervention programmes within the witness protection programme to assist our officers because they also endure some level of trauma.” Admitting the process to enter the witness protection programme can be tedious, James said many people have expressed concerns.
“It is not a programme you can just walk into. You can walk out of it because it is voluntary. But because of the nature, entering the programme is not as easy as it should be because you need to have a guarantee that must be given to the office of the DPP that the witness to be inducted is willing to, not only go to court and testify, but also be able to submit to being placed in a safe house where there will be certain restrictions.”
James said while people generally love their freedom, “when you become the main witness to a heinous crime, all of that changes. When that part of your life changes, we recognise it’s a case of life and death. When you are placed in the programme, the people there are wholly and solely responsible for your well-being and cater for all your necessary amenities, sustenance, life and comfort.”
He said what is happening with several witnesses, is that they endure boredom and monotony. “And as time goes by you almost feel as if you are in prison because of the restriction to movement. We always have to spend time with some of these witnesses to explain in detail the purpose of the programme and the reasons why they should stay.”