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Toronto Toronto police chief seeking external review of force’s missing persons investigations

Toronto Police Chief Mark Saunders at police headquarters in Toronto on May 26, 2015.

Kevin Van Paassen/The Globe and Mail

Toronto Police Chief Mark Saunders says he is taking steps to have an independent external review of the way his police force previously dealt with Bruce McArthur, the landscaper now accused of killing six men with ties to the Gay Village.

The chief announced the decision late on Friday afternoon, after 10 days of uproar in the LGBTQ community stemming from remarks he made to The Globe and Mail about the force's handling of the case and revelations that officers had questioned Mr. McArthur on two previous occasions – including for allegations that he tried to strangle someone with whom he had a sexual encounter – well before he was arrested on Jan. 18.

"It has become increasingly frustrating for the community to not get the answers they are looking for. I want to provide reassurance that we are taking their concerns seriously, that we see this as an opportunity to improve our police service and build our relationship with the community," Chief Saunders said in a statement.

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He said he had spent the past 10 days with officials, including provincial government representatives, to find ways to conduct an independent review that wouldn't affect the continuing criminal investigation and court proceedings.

"My hope is that such a review will consider not only our investigative processes, but take a hard look at systemic issues of bias of any kind. I believe these issues are serious enough to warrant a review," he said.

The Alliance for South Asian AIDS Prevention, which has been calling for an independent inquiry, reacted cautiously. Alliance board member Shakir Rahim said an external review would have to be commissioned by the Toronto Police Services Board, not the force itself. Furthermore, he said, the terms of reference would have to be framed with input from the community.

"We are dealing with things the police may have done wrong, they cannot be the ones to decide what an external review is going to examine," Mr. Rahim said.

Councillor Kristyn Wong-Tam, whose ward includes the Village, said she was pleased to hear that the chief was committing to an external review but she also cautioned that its scope would have to be defined in consultation with the community. "It's critically important that it truly is independent, free from police influence," Ms. Wong-Tam said.

She also said the police would have to provide full access to the inquiry's investigators.

LGBTQ community activist Nicki Ward noted that the chief's announcement only came after Mayor John Tory and Ontario Attorney-General Yasir Naqvi had already discussed the need for an inquiry. "How is this different from what John Tory has asked for?" she said.

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Ms. Ward also noted that the chief made the announcement in a communiqué released at 4:50 p.m. on Friday. "Not exactly top-of-the-hour stuff," she said. "Informing the community by press release is not outreach."

Mr. Tory said he looked forward to discussing the matter at the next Toronto Police Services Board meeting, scheduled for March 22.

"The chief, along with everyone else including myself, is dedicated to providing as much information as possible about this horrific case," he said.

Chief Saunders also said that he was completing plans to give the force a dedicated unit dealing with missing-persons cases. While Toronto police handle thousands of reports each year of people disappearing, the force does not have a specialized squad.

After men disappeared starting in the fall of 2010, the LGBTQ community complained that its fears that a serial killer was targeting its ranks were not taken seriously.

At the end of 2012, Toronto police launched Project Houston, which eventually looked into three missing men with ties to the Gay Village. Mr. McArthur was interviewed by police in 2013 because he was alleged to have had ties to all three men.

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Mr. McArthur was questioned again in 2016 after police were told he tried to strangle another man, with whom he'd had a sexual encounter in his vehicle. No charges were filed. The incident is now the subject of an internal review.

The LGBTQ community has also been upset after Chief Saunders defended Project Houston, telling The Globe's editorial board that Mr. McArthur might have been identified sooner had people who knew him come to police.

An alleged serial killer who is believed to have preyed upon men from Toronto’s gay community is now facing six counts of first-degree murder. Police say more charges are expected to be laid against 66-year-old Bruce McArthur. The Canadian Press
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