Lorimer Shenher is a former detective and author of That Lonely Section of Hell: The Botched Investigation of a Serial Killer Who Almost Got Away, which chronicles his work on the Robert Pickton case.
As the Gay Village serial-killer case unfolds, parallels with Vancouver’s disastrous Pickton investigation become increasingly more troubling, not only in terms of the scope of horror and tragedy, but also for the Toronto Police Service’s bizarre communications around the case.
Recent revelations that TPS homicide investigators interviewed alleged serial killer Bruce McArthur about the disappearances of three missing men several years ago don’t surprise me as a former detective. The question is: What did they do next?
Most surprising is Toronto Police Chief Mark Saunders’s apparent lack of knowledge about serial-killer investigations, coupled with his sudden tight-lipped approach amid some very ham-fisted handling of the public messaging.
Toronto Mayor John Tory’s call for an independent investigation into the department’s handling of the case could signal he’s lost confidence in Chief Saunders’s leadership. That the officer who brought supposed improprieties to light was Detective Sergeant Hank Idsinga, lead investigator of the McArthur file, seems to indicate a police department with a shaky hand at the helm. It is to the TPS’s credit they haven’t buried this discovery.
The most resignation-worthy comment Chief Saunders made is his mention of the TPS’s inexperience with serial killers and his suggestion they are a phenomenon restricted to other countries.
“This was something that hasn’t happened in our city before. We’ve sat back and watched CNN and watched the news reports on serial killers in other countries, but we haven’t seen it here,” Chief Saunders said in a Globe and Mail interview.
How short is his memory? Volumes have been written about three of Canada’s most notorious killers — Paul Bernardo, Karla Homolka and Robert Pickton. What CEO isn’t interested in learning how to avoid repeats of notorious failures in their own field? Leadership demands a higher standard of competence and awareness.
Lack of knowledge was unacceptable for the Vancouver Police during our investigation of missing women in the late nineties; it remains unacceptable for the Toronto police serving the most populated city in the country. There is no reason the TPS should be repeating the mistakes of the Pickton file.
When you’re responsible for the country’s largest metropolitan area, you need strong operational chops to assess the work of the people you lead − or the self-awareness to ask for help on difficult cases.
University of Toronto criminologist and serial-killer expert Sasha Reid offered to help. She went to the TPS in July, 2017, with a profile of a suspect for these disappearances. Ms. Reid had hoped her information would assist the investigation, but says police never followed up with her. Did Chief Saunders forget her attempted contribution to the case when he criticized the public for failing to come forward?
Early last week, Chief Saunders ill-advisedly suggested, “If anyone knew before us, it’s people who knew him very, very well. And so that did not come out,” leading many to find his comments and the mayor’s support of them rich at best. In light of this new development, it seems the TPS also knew Mr. McArthur very well. And now, Mr. Tory realizes something needs to change.
The TPS has had as dizzyingly incoherent a public-relations month as the Trump White House. By suggesting the community could have assisted the police more, Chief Saunders got it half right: It is likely there were people in the community with information for the police. And sometimes people don’t realize they know things of value. A relationship is required to draw information out.
The questions I would pose to the TPS are these: What made you rule out Bruce McArthur after his interview as someone of interest? If you didn’t, why not? What strategies did you employ to keep the public safe if you had concerns about him?
There are many ways of explaining police actions without ruining a potential court case or investigation. It takes some skill and effort, which is why police departments need to utilize trained spokespeople to get their messaging out. Cops generally do not make great PR people − not even chiefs.
Chief Saunders will need to assess the effectiveness of the TPS’s public relations. So far, they have only succeeded in throwing out blame like rice at a wedding. Then, he needs to do some reading on failed police cases so the force doesn’t keep making the same time-worn mistakes at the expense of the citizens of Toronto. That is, if he still has a job.