Preliminary discussions about witness protection at B.C.’s Missing Women Inquiry have pitted police against women from Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside, threatening to turn back the clock more than a decade on relations between the two groups.
Policing has changed a lot in Vancouver over the past 11 years, Vancouver Police Chief Jim Chu said in 2010 after releasing an internal report on the police investigation of serial killer Robert Pickton, who preyed on vulnerable, drug-addicted women. “I can say with all certainty this would not happen today,” he said.
But women’s groups from the Downtown Eastside said on Monday that they feel Vancouver police are once again minimizing the concerns of vulnerable women, which they believe enabled Mr. Pickton to continue to prey on residents of their neighbourhood.
The response of the Vancouver Police Department to a proposal for witness protection for those who appear at the inquiry is no different than the reaction more than a decade ago when women went missing, said Ann Livingston, co-founder of the Vancouver Area Network of Drug Users.
“It feels like they got their boot on your neck and that is how it felt when [women]were trying to [report that women were missing]back then,” she said, adding that police at that time refused to listen to drug addicts and sex trade workers.
Jason Gratl, a lawyer appointed by the inquiry to represent the perspective of vulnerable individuals in the Downtown Eastside, said the inquiry should not replicate the conditions that prevented people from receiving protection from police in the first place.
At stake in the debate is whether those who are most familiar with issues at the centre of the government-appointed inquiry will show up at the hearings, which begin in two weeks.
In private correspondence obtained by The Globe and Mail, Mr. Gratl has proposed a witness protection protocol that would allow women who feel vulnerable to give evidence by affidavit, anonymously and without cross examination.
The Vancouver Police Department, the federal government, which represents the RCMP, and the Vancouver Police Union objected, saying witnesses should be considered according to their circumstances and without blanket provisions.
A woman could set out a summary of her evidence and reasons for seeking protection in an affidavit, police department lawyer Tim Dickson said in a letter to the commission. The participants could consider whether the proposed evidence required disclosure of the women’s identity or cross examination. Inquiry head Wally Oppal could rule on each application, he wrote.
Kate Gibson, executive director of WISH, said the police lawyers defend the integrity of the department. “They are not appointed to make nice,” she said. The hearings will not be safe for vulnerable women if they are not believed and are discredited for what they say, Ms. Gibson said.
Mr. Gratl called cross examination an art dedicated to undermining the credibility of an opponent. “That attitude is precisely what vulnerable witnesses need protection from,” he said.
Someone with a warrant out for her arrest may have valuable evidence, but will not go into a hearing room with a dozen or more police officers, Mr. Gratl said. “Why would they walk into place where they were bound to be arrested,” he asked.
Also, some of the women now have children and jobs, and may not be willing to give evidence publicly about missing women, drug addiction and involvement in the sex trade. “It would be terrible to not have them come forward and talk about the missing women they knew very well and worked with,” Ms. Livingston said.
Inquiry spokesman Chris Freimond said Mr. Oppal will review written submissions and issue a ruling.