Toronto Police Chief Mark Saunders has asked for an internal review of the way his service handles reports of missing people, saying that his officers could have responded better to a series of disappearances and deaths linked to the city's Gay Village.
The force's Professional Standards unit has been asked to determine if there are "gaps and issues when it comes to how we do missing persons investigations," Chief Saunders told reporters Friday.
"In this particular instance, I think there is opportunity for us to learn ... there are things that could have been done better," he said.
The police chief spoke during an unusual press conference where detectives in three different probes outlined the efforts deployed to investigate two deaths and two disappearances this year.
The force has been criticized for the way it initially handled the two deaths. The body of Alloura Wells, a transgender woman, was found in August but it was only in November that she was identified. Her father said his initial report was not taken seriously because officers knew her as a homeless sex-trade worker.
The family of Tess Richey, who was strangled after leaving a club in the area, was upset that it was her mother who found her body in a laneway, rather than canvassing officers.
The two deaths, combined with unsolved cases of missing gay men, have created a climate of fear in the gay community. In addition, uniformed officers were barred from this year's Pride parade.
"I've never seen the relationship with Toronto police services break down to such a degree," transgender activist Nicki Ward told reporters Friday.
Chief Saunders said that when he headed the homicide squad, "there was no diminishment of an investigation due to the lifestyle of the victims … I would hope that's the attitude of all my officers."
He underlined that there is no current indication that there is a serial killer targeting the LGBTQ community but conceded that "the fact these three investigations are in a small geographical area has caused great concerns."
In Project Prism, which looked at two gay men who went missing this summer, Detective Sergeant Michael Richmond said investigators interviewed 52 witnesses and sought 26 judicial authorizations, such as search warrants or production orders, related to the June disappearance of 49-year-old Andrew Kinsman.
Some of the authorizations in the Kinsman investigation were mutual legal-assistance requests, meaning investigators sought information in foreign jurisdictions; for example, to get social-media or phone-app data stored in servers outside Canada.
For Selim Esen, the other missing man who was transient, investigators sought two judicial authorizations and interviewed 10 people.
Det. Sgt. Richmond said there is no evidence that online dating apps played a role in the disappearance of Mr. Kinsman or Mr. Esen, although the two men and three others who went missing earlier were active online.
"Missing person investigations are by their nature difficult," he said. "Every missing person investigation is a potential death investigation. This does not necessarily imply foul play."
In the Wells case, Detective Sergeant Dan Sabadics said a body in women's clothes and wig was found next to a tent in a ravine in August. The death likely took place in mid-July so the remains were decomposed.
Investigators checked if the body was that of missing transgender women in Northern Ontario and Alberta. It was only in November that they made a connection to Ms. Wells. The cause of her death still cannot be determined.
Police are continuing to attempt to speak with Ms. Wells's boyfriend, Augustinus Balesdent, who may be the last person to have seen her alive.
In Ms. Richey's case, homicide Detective Sergeant Graham Gibson said investigators are reviewing surveillance videos and are looking for a man who was seen with her the night she died.
The man is light-skinned and dark-haired with a slim build. He wore a dark jacket and light-coloured pants as he walked north on Church Street after 5 a.m. Saturday Nov. 25.
Police reluctantly confirmed Friday that her body was found by her mother.
When someone calls to report a missing person, "sensitivity is something I think is necessary, as busy as we may be," Chief Saunders said.
Despite the chief's remarks, Ms. Ward, a director of the Church Wellesley Neighbourhood Association, said the group would go ahead with plans to set up a safe-walk program.
"Reassured? No. But it's promising," she said.