Kim Rossmo is a professor in the School of Criminal Justice at Texas State University, and a former detective inspector in Vancouver where he specialized in the geographic profiling of serial killers.
The crimes of Robert Pickton, Canada's most prolific serial killer, brought attention to the problem of missing and murdered indigenous women. When police failed to recognize the significance of the high number of street sex-trade workers missing from Vancouver's Downtown Eastside, many wondered if the same thing could be happening elsewhere. A Globe and Mail investigation has shed some light on this issue by determining that indigenous women are approximately seven times more likely to be the victim of a serial murderer.
The numbers, though, should be embedded in a larger context: The 18 confirmed serial murder victims in a 36-year period translates into half a murder per year. Even the higher estimates mean that only one to two aboriginal women are the victims of a serial killer annually.
By comparison, about 35 aboriginal women – and 60 aboriginal men – are victims of (non-serial) homicide every year. These figures pale when compared to the high death rates of aboriginal people from suicide, poisoning, vehicle accidents, HIV and tuberculosis.
The narrative of a white serial killer hunting aboriginal women while police ignore his crimes is seductive because it plays to stereotypes; however, it is not particularly accurate. There may be some offenders who target victims by ethnicity, but the more important factors are opportunity and vulnerability (about half of Pickton's victims were non-aboriginal). Prostitution strolls provide serial killers a perfect hunting ground.
There, a predator can find a drug-influenced prostitute who will willingly climb into his car and drive to a dark underground parking lot for sex.
If she is attacked, she will be reluctant to report the crime to the police. If she is killed, the media will pay little attention.
Between 1991 and 1995, 63 known prostitutes were murdered in Canada. Prostitutes in B.C. are estimated to be 60 to 120 times more likely to be murdered than someone from the general adult female population. As First Nations females are disproportionately involved in the street sex trade in western Canada (estimates range from 14 to 63 per cent), this is the risky activity that lies at the core of aboriginal serial murder victimization.
Roughly 25 per cent of murders go unsolved, but this figure doubles if the victim is a prostitute. Some have suggested that police investigations of these murders and disappearances suffer from bias. Generally, however, other factors are at play.
While no detective wants to see a murderer go free, let alone a serial killer, many homicides remain unsolved. The more difficult the investigation, the less likely there will be a resolution. These are often stranger crimes, difficult to clear because of the lack of a victim-offender relationship. If the victim is part of the street demimonde, co-operative witnesses can be hard to find and routines impossible to establish. Moreover, powerless victims may receive inadequate attention from an overworked criminal justice system.
While global statistics mean little to an individual victim or her family, they are important for informing policy decisions. Serial murder is rare, and the identified cases represent a small fraction of the over 20,000 homicides in Canada since 1980. While the data is too limited to establish trends, serial murder generally tracks all murder and Canada has experienced a steady decline in homicide for several years now. However, the risk of violence remains high for certain groups. Aboriginals, particularly males, suffer from disproportionately high rates of homicide. Street prostitution is a risky activity, made all the more dangerous by existing legislation.
The most vulnerable are those who need the most protection. The first step in this effort is to collect and analyze the information necessary to understand the problem and guide organizational responses. The Globe is to be commended for their comprehensive investigation, but one is left wondering why the government has not already begun such an effort.
A national inquiry has been called for on this problem – though perhaps exactly what the problem is remains to be determined. While something must be done, inquiries are often more of an exercise in politics than in function. We need a better way to address major issues, one that is more focused and less expensive. Parties should work collaboratively to identify the nature of the problem, analyze the causes, develop solutions, and evaluate their effectiveness.
We need answers – not polemics or excuses. Amongst other initiatives, the available research points to the need for programs to help aboriginal youth adapt to urban life and avoid the perils of street life.
This may be the single most powerful strategy to protect them from serial murderers and other violent predators.
Do you have information that could assist in our investigation into serial killing as it relates to the broader issue of Canada's missing and murdered women? If so, please e-mail The Globe's MMIW team at MMIW@globeandmail.com.