A police-community safety committee set up after a young woman fell or was pushed from a hotel window in Vancouver's Downtown Eastside in 2010 has scored some successes, including a role in the prosecution of Martin Tremblay, a sex offender who preyed on young aboriginal girls.
Despite that "significant positive impact," the initiative – called SisterWatch and launched in 2010 – has not managed to build trust between the Vancouver Police Department and residents of the Downtown Eastside, according to an evaluation report prepared last year.
"Though there are some trust relationships building, they seem to relate more to individual VPD members regardless of their connection to SisterWatch," states the report, which is dated June, 2015, and was released by the police department this month after a Freedom of Information request.
Asked to rank the level of trust between the VPD and women in the Downtown Eastside, 2 per cent of officers who responded to a survey reported a very high level of trust, compared with zero per cent for women.
On the other end of the spectrum, 4 per cent of officers reported no trust at all, compared with 29 per cent of women asked the same question.
The report, prepared by consultant Alison Brewin, notes survey results are "limited in their reliability" because of the small number of respondents involved: 46 women and 82 police officers.
But the results provide a window into the concerns that launched SisterWatch and remain a challenge for the group, which was set up to address what critics saw as an uncaring, dismissive policing approach toward women in the Downtown Eastside.
SisterWatch was founded in October, 2010, after community members and activists marched to VPD's Main Street offices to protest the death of Ashley Machiskinic, a young woman who died after falling or being pushed from the window of a Downtown Eastside hotel.
The protesters maintained the VPD should be investigating the case as a murder, not a suicide.
Feelings were running high as the force had only weeks before apologized for shortcomings in its investigation related to Robert Pickton, who is serving a life sentence after being convicted in 2007 on six counts of murder.
"Community and family members of Ashley's still feel as though evidence was ignored in Ashley's case and that the facts they understood weren't reflected in the VPD response," the force says in a summary released with Ms. Brewin's report.
"The VPD continue to hold firm that the facts they have access to suggest suicide. Despite offering rewards for evidence that leads to an arrest in the case, witnesses have not come forward with new information."
But the demonstration led to a committee to look at safety, policing and other issues related to violence against women.
There were struggles from the beginning over membership, approach and even a name. An early suggestion, Project Guardian, was scrapped after community members found it patronizing.
When the Missing Women Commission of Inquiry, a provincial inquiry that looked into the Pickton murders, released its recommendations in 2012, it recommended SisterWatch be evaluated "with a view to establishing best practices for meaningful police-community partnerships."
The evaluation included several case studies, including that of Mr. Tremblay, who came to VPD attention through SisterWatch meetings. He was charged and convicted in the deaths of two girls, aged 16 and 17, in 2013 and named a dangerous offender last year. He is appealing that designation.
The mistrust that has characterized relationships between women – many of them poor and aboriginal – in the Downtown Eastside and police reflects more than a century of history, said Angela Marie MacDougall, executive director of Battered Women's Support Services, one of the groups that sit on the SisterWatch committee.
"It's not going to be a quick fix," said Ms. MacDougall, one of three women who were arrested in the 2010 demonstration. "There have been some important moves VPD has taken and applied. … SisterWatch is a snapshot of a long journey."
Ms. Brewin's report includes 17 recommendations, including funding for a SisterWatch co-ordinator. A VPD spokesman said he could not speak to all of the recommendations but that progress on some is continuing.