POLICE will be operating a witness security unit by December in an effort to stem criticism of their handling of organised crime.
The force has formalised plans for the unit, which will be staffed by a 100-strong team of detectives and general duty police and is likely to come under the auspices of the Crime Wing - allowing a greater degree of co-ordination on secret informants.
Unit Chief Inspector Simon Patterson said officers were being recruited.
He wanted to take over all cases falling under the ambit of individual commanders, mainly because it had been a burden to handle informants in the course of other investigative duties.
''It is basically a tight knit, dedicated unit,'' he said.
He said it would be difficult to assess demand for the unit as numbers of victims and witnesses might fluctuate.
''Basically, protection is assessed on whether the person is under a specific threat. It is as important, however, to give reassurance to a witness as it is to offer simple protection,'' he said.
''We are looking for a blend of officers because when you are dealing with witnesses you are dealing with someone on a long-term basis and we have to give their lives some semblance of normality.
''For that reason, we need officers who will be able to interact with their families; someone with social skills and maturity.'' The unit will have an annual budget of $1 million, out of which this year will come money for some ''safe houses'' to hide so-called supergrasses testifying against gang bosses.
Most of the unit's workload will relate to High Court cases.
The police plans follow the dumping of a proposal made by Mr Justice Kempster - who led a commission of inquiry into all aspects of witness security - to set up an independent body to provide support and anonymity to informants thought to be at risk of reprisals.
His recommendation was detailed in a report made public in July 1993.
It was linked to the findings of an ad hoc group in the Fight Crime Committee, which urged a shake-up of witness security provisions.
The unit's prospective duties will take on extra importance when the Organised and Serious Crimes Bill is passed by the Legislative Council. Under the draft, witnesses in select matters can be forced to give evidence.