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pickton inquiry

Screen grab of serail killer Robert Pickton from 2007.

A former 911 operator alleges uniformed superiors repeatedly brushed off reports of sex trade workers disappearing from Vancouver's Downtown Eastside in the late 1990s, while a civilian clerk agrees there was prejudice across the police department but has denied being dismissive herself.

Rae-Lynn Dicks told the missing women inquiry that, when she worked for the Vancouver Police Department's call centre, her sergeants repeatedly told her they weren't going to spend "valuable time and money" looking for prostitutes.

She described an atmosphere of rampant bias in which the women were considered "just hookers." Her statements were corroborated by Sandy Cameron, who worked for the missing women's unit for 22 years.

Ms. Dicks said if callers had no fixed address for the person they were reporting missing, the file could get blown off. Cameron added there was an unwritten policy of no body, no homicide.

The first line of contact for the public was often 911 operators, and the cases were later routed to Ms. Cameron.

"They didn't care. It was systemic. It didn't matter. They were marginalized women, most of them were aboriginal," Ms. Dicks testified on Monday. "As far as I was getting from the department, I was told to 'stop being a bleeding heart,' and to 'grow up, these people are scum of the Earth.'"

Both women took calls from family members of women who vanished as Robert Pickton was hunting sex workers in the impoverished neighbourhood. The inquiry is examining why the serial killer wasn't caught sooner.

Ms. Dicks said officers would mock aboriginal prostitutes as "drunk" around the office, and Ms. Cameron agreed she heard statements like "a hooker can't report getting raped," suggesting instead the rape report was made because the woman was refused pay for sex.

"To name a name to it, I couldn't do it, but it was heard regularly by staff throughout the building," Cameron said.

But Cameron denied making similarly callous remarks herself when speaking to family members of missing women, although several family members have told the inquiry that was their experience with her.

The mother of Tanya Holyk complained in 1997 that Cameron had called her daughter a "coke head" who had abandoned her child, and then threatened to call social services to take the baby away.

Ms. Cameron, who is now retired, teared up several times speaking about work she said she loved because she sometimes helped people reunite.

"I was in there for 22.5 years. Not everyone that I spoke to was polite to me and quite possibly I wasn't polite to them. But I would never make derogatory statements of any nature," Cameron said.

She noted family members were often agitated or even swearing because they were so upset.

"These are people that were reported missing because someone loved them, someone wanted to find them," she said.

She said she received almost no formal training for her position, which at first involved only answering telephones, but later required her to call friends of missing people and close files if someone confirmed seeing the person.

She said she was spoken to only once by a manager about complaints from family members of victims when they were convened around 2000 by Project Evenhanded, a joint Vancouver Police and RCMP investigation into historical cases of missing women.

But she heard informally through friends who were at those meetings she should "watch my back," she testified.

"I'm going to be the easiest person to blame," she said she was told after being warned she could become a scapegoat.

She also contradicted earlier testimony from Detective Constable Laurie Shenher that she had made racist remarks and misrepresented herself as a police officer while on the phone.

She said she asked superiors to tape her phone calls to protect herself. The inquiry heard a review of one tape that had discredited a complaint that she had called herself a detective and confirmed she had conducted the call professionally.

Ms. Cameron admitted she did refer to a woman as a "hooker, oops sorry, sex trade worker" in an e-mail in 1999.

She expressed great frustration that the force appeared to regard the unit as a low priority. It was often staffed by only one detective, and was a "backdoor" to the more prestigious homicide unit, she said.

"You have to have someone in there who has a real passion and wants to do that work," she said when asked by the inquiry's lawyer for recommendations for improvement.

She broke down on the stand when asked by her own lawyer if she had anything else to add.

"For myself, this is something I will probably get over. It's never going to go away for the families," she said through tears.

She noted her reputation has been dragged through the mud and the Vancouver Police Department has made unfounded accusations against her that have been repeated in the media.

"What they've done to me has been really unfair and it feels like I've just been used and it's easy to blame me," she said, as some family members of victims who were watching from the gallery left the room.

Mr. Pickton was arrested in 2002 and eventually charged with the murder of 26 women, including Ms. Holyk.

The inquiry announced Monday it will hold six public policy forums starting May 1 to ask the public to contribute ideas "for practical reform and implementation strategies" related to the phenomenon of missing and murdered women.