Did Toronto police drop the ball on the Bruce McArthur case? Chief Mark Saunders had an opportunity to answer that question on Monday. His response was troubling.
The Globe and Mail invited Chief Saunders to its editorial board to talk with a group of writers and editors. One of the questions, naturally, was about Mr. McArthur. The Toronto landscaper has been charged with the murders of six men. Police have uncovered human remains buried in landscaping planters and they are searching for more. If investigators are right (and the case has not been tested in court), then a serial killer was at large in the city for years.
Toronto hasn't seen anything quite like it. As Chief Saunders said, it's the kind of thing you hear about on CNN, happening in other places.
So it is only proper to ask whether police mishandled the investigation. Members of the city's gay community had been saying for years that they believed something dark was going on. They pushed for a more vigorous investigation of mysterious disappearances in the Gay Village. Chief Saunders said as recently as December that there was no evidence that a serial killer was responsible. As more details of the crimes emerge, questions about how the disappearances were investigated are bound to grow.
Given that background, the chief might have said that he is unhappy police did not make an arrest sooner and that he is eager to know what lessons they can draw from the case. He might have said the force is planning a formal probe of its efforts, going over the investigation in exhaustive detail to determine whether investigators made mistakes. That was not the tone he took at Monday's editorial board.
In fact, he seemed to put a good part of the blame for the failure to apprehend Mr. McArthur earlier on those who encountered him but did not come forward with evidence that might have alerted investigators. People have a tendency to "self-vet," he said. They may have a piece of the puzzle but don't go to police, either because they don't think it is important or because they don't want to get mixed up with the justice system.
The chief says police could have moved sooner if someone had come to them with a crucial scrap of evidence. Instead, Mr. McArthur navigated freely in the community "and all the while, nobody knew."
That is fair as far as it goes. Citizens should not hesitate to approach the authorities with what might turn out to be critical information. Police need the help of the public to do their job.
But are the police themselves really so blameless in this case? How can the chief say with such confidence that he is satisfied investigators handled it correctly? Did they follow every lead, turn every stone? Have police done enough to build trust with the LGBTQ community? Did they perhaps take the disappearances less seriously because most of the victims lived on the margins of an often-marginalized community?
The chief rejected those suggestions on Monday. He said police conduct will be "thoroughly examined" in a wider look at their handling of missing-persons cases, and he will "take ownership" if they did something wrong. But he says that if the question is whether he was satisfied with the investigation, then "with the information that we had, the answer is yes."
The chief said police always strive to treat everyone the same, no matter what their background. The notion that investigators discounted anyone because of who they are "is just not true, categorically not true." Again: How can he be sure without examining how the investigation was conducted?
After the Robert Pickton serial-killer case in Vancouver, a commission of inquiry looked into the conduct of police. It found that the investigations into missing and murdered women were "blatant failures." It also found that police underreacted to the disappearance of marginalized victims.
Whether a probe of the McArthur investigation would uncover police errors is impossible to say. What is troubling is that the head of the force seems to see no pressing need to find out.
On Tuesday evening, Chief Saunders released a statement about his visit to the editorial board along with a recording of what he said. In the hour-long session, his statement read, "I talked at length about the challenges we face and our desire to work with the community to move forward and be better. I am releasing the interview in its entirety so you can hear for yourself."
Police, he said, had invested heavily in the missing-persons investigation. "A dozen full-time investigators did thousands of hours of work canvassing the community, posting flyers, issuing news releases, interviewing witnesses, and still those activities did not yield any results."
If the fuss over the chief's comments causes the police to look a little harder at how all of this happened, it is all to the good.
Big organizations that come under scrutiny often circle the wagons. Toronto police should resist that tendency. Instead of deflecting criticism, Chief Saunders should do his utmost to discover why police failed to make an arrest for so long and what they can learn from the experience.