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Flags fly outside a community center in Toronto's Gay Village on Feb. 8, 2019.IAN WILLMS/The New York Times News Service

Justin Ling is a Montreal-based journalist and the author of Missing from the Village: The Story of Serial Killer Bruce McArthur, the Search for Justice, and the System That Failed Toronto’s Queer Community, from which this essay was adapted.

When someone disappears, we tend to imagine that it’s like a scene out of a movie. We believe that when someone doesn’t show up for work one day, or they are supposed to pick up their kid but she’s left standing in the rain, forces are marshalled. There are sirens. A team springs into action. Some policing axiom tells us that if you don’t find them within 48 hours, the chances are slim you’ll ever find them. So time is of the essence.

Someone’s living room becomes a de facto war room. Police retrieve toothbrushes, or maybe a comb, to get DNA. They bring in a K9 unit to sniff an old sweater. Officers canvass the neighbourhood. News anchors shuffle papers. Good evening. Local police are seeking help in finding... Hours go by. They don’t come home. An officer spreads a map across a dining-room table and points to a park. Hands go up. Volunteers are dispatched. They link arms, shuffling through the tall grass, looking for clues.

Maybe the missing posters won’t be stapled to telephone poles forever; maybe the evening news won’t remind the city of their disappearance on each anniversary of their disappearance; maybe the cops won’t issue new calls for information every year. But we expect that there will be some follow-up, some effort to keep those cases front and centre, especially in the internet age.

These are myths.

The Royal Canadian Mounted Police report that, in an average year, some 30,000 adults go missing across Canada. In many of those cases, there is no great mystery. The RCMP, which compiles statistics from all local police forces, says nearly two-thirds of those missing adults are found within 24 hours. Nearly 90 per cent are found within a week. So there is rarely a command centre, or a citywide response, or even a local news bulletin – and if there is one, it’s brief and easily missed. The file may land on a beat officer’s desk, but if there’s nothing to suggest foul play, it hardly takes priority.

For years, Canada’s most populous city didn’t have a dedicated missing persons team. Toronto didn’t have a public-facing website that listed all its long-term missing persons. If missing people got any attention at all when they disappeared, things would often go silent in a matter of weeks. All too often, people disappeared once in the physical world, and disappeared again in the public eye. Their cases were left to sit in filing cabinets. They became the human equivalent of 404 errors: not found.

Between 2010 and the summer of 2017, eight men went missing from Toronto’s Gay Village. Each would become part of that 10 per cent who are considered long-term missing persons. Each would become, essentially, forgotten by the city at large.

It wasn’t until Andrew Kinsman vanished, just after Toronto’s annual Pride festival, that police were pushed into action by a network of dogged, determined and effective advocates – a group of people who spent their social capital to ensure he couldn’t be forgotten.

It worked. Thanks to them, police took his disappearance seriously. The story remained in the spotlight, and investigators worked tirelessly until they found answers.

Then, in early 2018, the dreaded news came: The Gay Village had, as many feared, a serial killer on its hands. Eventually, Bruce McArthur was arrested, and in 2019 he pled guilty to eight counts of first-degree murder.

For many, that’s where the story ended. But we still need to have a conversation about a system that lets people go missing twice – because if we don’t, this will happen again. And this year – when a conversation about defunding the police has hit the mainstream – is precisely the time to consider this idea with both energy and caution.

Mr. McArthur escaped justice for so long not because of the police who worked this case, but in spite of them. The dizzying amount of physical and digital evidence, coupled with the voluminous hours of interviews conducted, required dedicated and well-trained investigators. Hardworking detectives were, and are, necessary to catch serial killers such as Mr. McArthur.

But we can’t accept the status quo. Increasingly, Canadian police departments are spreading their finite resources on evermore specialized operations, from counterterrorism to the problematic “guns and gangs” operations. Despite a budget that has surpassed $1-billion, the Toronto Police continue to warehouse missing persons cases on the fleeting list of press releases on their website.

Police officers are not Swiss Army knives. They cannot fix every problem. The core jobs of police are to keep the peace, collect evidence and lay charges. Missing persons cases sit uneasily outside of that triangle.

Tasking officers to investigate those cases, even as there is no evidence of criminality, is using the wrong tool. It requires the friends and family of the missing to lobby police that their loved one’s disappearance is unusual enough that it necessitates police intervention. For friends and family with no social capital, like Mr. Kinsman’s had, that was an impossible ask. What’s more, this system asks people who have been underserved and criminalized by one arm of the police to work enthusiastically with another.

This case makes abundantly clear that there can’t be justice when sex work and drug use continues to be criminalized, or when police harassment of queer people continues, or when the scourge of police brutality against racialized people persists, or when the pernicious failure of police departments to address violence against Indigenous people, particularly women and girls, remains unaddressed. While we must demand more sensitivity to culture, identity and trauma, asking the police to also untangle the Gordian knot of centuries of injustice is absurd.

It is time to open this work to those beyond the police, bringing in social workers and outreach officers to engage with communities, especially marginalized ones, in a way that recognizes the inherent trauma – both in being marginalized and in being in the confusing throes of a missing persons investigation. There is no particular reason why these investigations must be done exclusively by police officers. Indeed, how many times must we learn it is a faulty premise?

But that should be just a first step. Change needs to come – not only to the Toronto Police, who failed the men who went missing, but to every police service throughout North America. Fealty to the status quo is doing a disservice to those who lost their lives because of it.

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