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It is time to call an independent inquiry into police conduct in the case of Toronto's Gay Village killings.

Since the arrest of accused serial killer Bruce McArthur, questions have been mounting about the performance of police. Detectives conducted two separate investigations into the disappearances of gay men, Project Houston and Project Prism. With the number of victims now at seven, the community is right to ask questions about whether those probes were properly handled and if police could have identified a suspect sooner.

Toronto Police Chief Mark Saunders suggested in a visit to The Globe and Mail editorial board that no one familiar with Mr. McArthur came forward with evidence that might have pointed to him. But we know that Mr. McArthur was convicted in 2003 of hitting a man with a metal pipe and barred from the Gay Village as part of his sentence, information that should have at least put him on police radar. We also know, thanks to media reports, that police interviewed Mr. McArthur several years ago.

Members of the gay community suspected for a long while that a predator was in their midst and pushed police to press harder with their investigation. Chief Saunders told them as recently as December that police had no evidence a serial killer was at large.

Despite all of this, police are just now beginning to open the door to the possibility that their conduct of the investigation may have fallen short of what it should have been. They are saying that, now that it is clear the police interviewed Mr. McArthur in the past, they are launching an internal, professional-standards investigation. That is as it should be. It is disturbing to learn that investigators once had the man accused of these awful crimes right in front of them. Separately, police are also looking into how they handle missing-persons cases.

But an internal probe, conducted by the police into the police, is not enough. What is needed is a full, independent and impartial inquiry. Only then can we hope to get a proper accounting of how police acted in this case.

When a policeman shot youth Sammy Yatim as he wielded a knife on a Toronto streetcar, the chief at the time, Bill Blair, appointed a retired judge to investigate. His report had useful things to say about the use of force and how to deal with disturbed individuals.

In the case of serial killer Robert Pickton in Vancouver, an inquiry examined the conduct of police in detail. It found "blatant failures," caused in part by a tendency to underplay to disappearance of marginalized people.

Was that a factor in this case? Chief Saunders insists that police poured resources into the investigations and took the disappearances as seriously as they would in any community.

In his visit to The Globe, the chief said he was open to an inquiry, but his attitude was defensive. The police are under intense scrutiny over this case. The natural reaction of a proud group of men and women is to fend off any suggestion that they might have bungled a crucial investigation.

That is precisely why an outside inquiry is necessary. The point of such an inquiry would not be to pillory the police or find a scapegoat. Sometimes even the most dedicated investigators fail to uncover the truth.

The point would be to learn. Did police fail to share information with each other that might have led to an earlier arrest? Did the prosecution of Mr. McArthur years ago get lost in the shuffle, leading police to overlook him? What happened to the record of that interview with Mr. McArthur, if there was a record? Did the fact that most of the missing men were living on the edges in one way or another lead investigators to treat their disappearances differently than they would have if they had been solid burghers from Lawrence Park?

Toronto needs to know. The police force should lower its defences and let an independent investigator find out.

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