“Blatant” police failures triggered by systemic bias against the poor, vulnerable women of Vancouver’s drug-ridden Downtown Eastside allowed serial killer Robert Pickton to evade arrest for years, the final report from the Missing Women Commission of Inquiry says.
Wally Oppal, the former judge and B.C. attorney-general who led the public inquiry, released his 1,448-page report on Monday. It is titled “Forsaken,” in reference to the dozens of missing and murdered women who he said were forsaken by both police and the public.
Chief among his 63 recommendations was the creation of a regional police force to prevent the kind of cross-jurisdictional bungling between Vancouver police and the RCMP that the inquiry heard let the murders continue for years.
Mr. Oppal, whose appointment drew fierce opposition from some victims’ relatives and advocacy groups because of his government past, said one fact is inescapable – if the women who vanished from the Downtown Eastside had lived in a more affluent area, their disappearances would have been handled much differently.
“After reviewing the evidence of the investigations, I have come to the conclusion that there was systemic bias by the police,” Mr. Oppal said at a news conference, one of the few times his words drew cheers and applause from victims’ relatives instead of protests and jeers.
He said the missing women were, simply, treated as “nobodies.”
“When I talk about systemic bias, I had to ask myself one question: Would the reaction of the police and the public [have] been any different if the missing women had come from Vancouver’s west side? The answer is obvious.”
Mr. Oppal has stressed that all parties must work together to tackle the issues that led to such a “tragedy of epic proportions.” But if his report was intended to unite, to provide closure, it appeared unsuccessful on Monday. He had not been at the podium for more than a minute when the heckling began.
The inquiry, announced in 2010 to examine why Mr. Pickton was able to get away with the killings for so long, heard from 85 witnesses over 93 days of hearings. Witnesses included members of the Vancouver Police Department and the RCMP, which has jurisdiction in Port Coquitlam, site of Mr. Pickton’s farm.
Finger-pointing between the two forces was common during the inquiry – a fact Mr. Oppal called unseemly.
Doug LePard, the Vancouver department’s deputy chief, testified that the force did not pursue Mr. Pickton – even though he was the top suspect – because he was in RCMP territory. Mr. LePard also criticized the RCMP for not sharing information and botching an interview with Mr. Pickton.
RCMP lawyer Cheryl Tobias told the inquiry Vancouver police failed to recognize the gravity of the situation and the forces could have combined efforts to catch the killer much sooner.
In his report, Mr. Oppal said cross-jurisdictional barriers contributed “significantly” to the failures of the investigations.
“In the cold hard light of 2012, using an objective test and avoiding the unerring eye of hindsight, I conclude that the missing and murdered women investigations were a blatant failure,” Mr. Oppal wrote.
He also recommended the province establish a compensation fund for the children of the missing and murdered women. And, although he did not count it as a formal recommendation, he urged the province to provide funding to existing centres that help prostitutes.
To that end, Attorney-General Shirley Bond announced the province would commit $750,000 to the WISH Drop-In Centre Society. Ms. Bond, who was teary-eyed as she addressed reporters on what the victims’ relatives have been through, said she would also adopt Mr. Oppal’s recommendation to appoint a “champion” for at-risk women. Former lieutenant-governor Steven Point will chair a new advisory committee on their safety and security.
When asked about the regional police force, Ms. Bond said the province will explore what that model would look like.
Both Vancouver Police and the RCMP said on Monday they would take time to study the report before commenting further.
Jim Chu, chief of Vancouver Police, also wrote in a statement that the department “regrets anything we did that may have delayed the eventual solving of these murders,” although he admitted those words would come as small consolation.
Mr. Pickton was charged in the deaths of 27 women. The charges, however, were split into two groups – he would first be tried for the murders of six women, then the remaining 20. But after he was convicted of six second-degree murder counts at the first trial, the Crown decided not to pursue the next trial, reasoning Mr. Pickton was already serving the maximum sentence.
The remains of 33 women were found on Mr. Pickton’s farm. He once said he had killed 49.
Mr. Oppal called him the “worst mass murderer in Canadian history.”