Toronto police might have identified a suspected serial killer in the city's gay village earlier if people who had crossed his path had been more forthcoming with investigators in the past, Chief Mark Saunders says.
"We knew something was up. … We did not have the evidence," Chief Saunders said in an interview with The Globe and Mail, noting that Bruce McArthur, who was recently charged with the deaths of six men, was a well-known member of the community. "If anyone knew before us, it's people who knew him very, very well. And so that did not come out."
The chief defended his service's handling of a two-year investigation called Project Houston launched in 2012, into the disappearances of three men of similar ages and physical appearance who had ties to the village. Members of the LGBTQ community have criticized the service for not recognizing a potential serial killer sooner. Chief Saunders said he is confident his officers did all they could based on the information they had at the time.
"I've heard a lot of sources say certain things, and had those sources said those things when we had Project Houston, I think there is a very strong potential that the outcome could have been different," Chief Saunders said.
He later added: "We knew that people were missing and we knew we didn't have the right answers. But nobody was coming to us with anything."
Chief Saunders noted that the way the force handles missing-persons cases is under review, but said he thinks his officers did the best they could with Project Houston. Relations have been strained between police and the local LGBTQ community going back decades, to the controversial bathhouse raids, and again last summer, when officers were excluded from the Toronto Pride parade.
"If there are things that we can do to increase relationship, if there are things to be operationally better, I'm willing to hear that," Chief Saunders said.
"But I don't mind speaking on what we did. Was I satisfied with what we did? At the time, with the information that we had, the answer is yes," Chief Saunders said.
The chief's remarks are a form of victim blaming, Nicki Ward, a transgender activist said.
"It's beyond disingenuous," she said, noting that members of the community mistrust police. "If you don't have an organic connection with the community, how can you possibly communicate? The barrier is ridiculously high."
Councillor Kristyn Wong-Tam, whose ward includes the village, said that she had heard that male sex workers are reluctant to report problems to the police because "they felt that it wasn't going to be safe for them to tell their stories."
She said the service needs to rebuild its relationship with the LGBTQ community.
"They have to work hard to develop that level of trust," she said. "They have to be engaged with the community, ongoing, not just when something goes wrong, in order for the community to feel that they can trust the police and go to the police when they need help."
Chief Saunders noted the charges against Mr. McArthur are unprecedented for Toronto and the service, which is not experienced in investigating serial killers.
"This is something that hasn't happened in our city before. We've sat back and watched CNN and watched news reports on serial killers in other countries, but we haven't seen it here."
Since Mr. McArthur's arrest, new information has been brought forward that could have helped investigators years ago, he said, comparing the situation to investigations into sex assaults or street gangs in which detectives do not have the co-operation of people with key knowledge.
"If things are not reported, it emboldens the suspect."
Project Houston, which ran from November, 2012, to April, 2014, looked into the disappearance of Skandaraj Navaratnam, 40, Abdulbasir Faizi, 42, and Majeed Kayhan, 58, who vanished between 2010 and 2012.
Mr. McArthur is now accused of killing Mr. Navaratnam and Mr. Kayhan.
He has also been charged with the murder of four other men in the years after Project Houston shut down. Mr. McArthur also had a conviction for assaulting a sex worker with a metal pipe. He came to the attention of police in September.