Lorimer Shenher is a former Vancouver Police Department detective and lead investigator of Vancouver's missing women investigation. He is the author of That Lonely Section of Hell: The Botched Investigation of a Serial Killer Who Almost Got Away which chronicles his experiences working on the Robert Pickton case.
The tragic discovery of bodies in Toronto and the arrest of Bruce McArthur brings British Columbia's Robert Pickton case to mind for many. As the lead detective of Vancouver's missing women investigation in the late nineties, it's obvious that Toronto's cases and the community's concerns bear striking similarities to those we faced.
Missing marginalized people. Police denial of evidence pointing to a serial killer. Growing community worry. Suspect in custody. Discovery of human remains. Large-scale property search. Mounting murder charges. Police defence of investigative delays.
The script echoes a sadly predictable litany, familiar, painful and outrageous.
Breaking the script down, we begin with missing marginalized people. One of the most maddening aspects of my investigation was the notion that marginalized people often wish to disappear. While I don't dispute that the human desire to run away – from violence, from a bad relationship, from debt, from responsibility – exists, I can tell you as a former missing-persons detective, it was very difficult, even back in the late 1990s, to disappear without leaving a trace or hint, and exponentially more difficult in this digital age, where all people leave technological footprints, often without realizing it.
A cursory investigation – and I'm not suggesting this is what the Toronto Police Service members have done in this case, I have no information as to the quality of their work – in which investigators have come to the swift conclusion that the person must not want to be found, should not form the default police assumption. Even while respecting privacy concerns, a creative police officer with decent people skills can work within the law and examine the movements – or lack thereof – of a missing person. Using contacts in banking, social services and the coroner's service, information can be obtained to track them. In the Pickton investigation, I discovered no activity on the part of the missing women through these means. These women living in poverty had not picked up assistance cheques, had not called loved ones, had not accessed medical care. What I perceived as an ominous indication they had been met with harm, either in the form of foul play or suicide, was not received with the same concern by my Vancouver Police superiors or those in the RCMP. Every day, I was asked, "Are they really missing?" – meaning, "Maybe they just don't want to be found."
The police rarely ask that question when they receive reports of non-marginalized missing people. I say that because I've investigated many of those in my time and no one ever asked me that unless we found a clue that the person was still active in some capacity. And bank activity alone does not prove someone isn't in danger or under the control of a predator.
To deny to the public that there is any evidence indicating the operation of a serial killer is wrong. The evidence is that you have an increase in missing people of a similar demographic, unexplained and statistically anomalous. You might be wrong, ultimately, but better to err on the side of overreaction than under. And if your rationale is that you don't want to spook a killer or tip them off that you're onto them, you need to rethink your strategy. The safety of the community always comes first, ahead of any quest for additional charges or more evidence.
The worst that police would have to do is admit an error, but entrenched in their culture is a deep loathing to place themselves in a position where they might ever have to do just that. The reluctance to warn the public of the possibility of a serial killer is not only disrespectful to the people you serve, it's also dangerous, as we learned in Vancouver. The public can handle the truth; they suspect it already and typically voice their mounting community concern very early on. The police must respect the public enough to share it with them. Family members and friends are often the first to tell the police they fear something sinister has happened. The police follow their own gut instincts – why can't they give the same courtesy to people who know the missing person intimately? Where is the risk in exploring those instincts and those of a tightly knit community?
The historical woes of the Toronto Police Service with respect to its citizens of colour and the LGBTQ community are sadly familiar but not entirely unique to them. Many if not most police services share the burdens of a toxic and archaic culture staffed with predominantly heterosexual, cis-gender, white men. The minorities it does attract must subsume any marginalized identities and intersections within this large blue club.
This is a critical dynamic for non-police people to understand. The recruitment of visible and non-visible minorities initially trumpets diversity and inclusion, but in reality, their admission requires that those people subliminally check their marginal identities at the door or they simply will not survive in policing. They will never hold any power to change the institution until their numbers reach a critical mass, but this doesn't happen because they can become overwhelmed by the culture and lose sight of that desire and of their identities, becoming the "good female officer," the "good queer officer," the "good black officer" – that police person who cloaks their identity for survival and appears to assume all the qualities and privilege of the majority.
But wait, you say: Toronto police have a person of colour, a black man, for their chief. He must understand marginalization, what marginalized communities face and how the police carry biases. I refer you to the paragraph above and point to the example of when Toronto began searching for a new chief in 2015, and overlooked a highly-educated, progressive, community-focused, high-ranking deputy chief in Peter Sloly — a black man – in favour of Mark Saunders – also a black man. Chief Saunders, by all appearances maintains the status quo on contentious police issues of race such as carding. In a recent news conference, he assured the public that in all police investigations, TPS members do not see colour or sexual orientation or insert-your-marginalized-status-here and treat every investigation with the same vigour. Textbook Police Communications 101 denial of any awareness of the biases all humans carry.
Chief Saunders is not a bad person or a bad police officer. I know a thousand Mark Saunderses – I was one myself as a queer cop – and I respect his lived experience in a very tough police culture. He has risen by understanding and playing the game. You can't blame him, just as you can't blame individual cops and police departments for acting exactly as their culture demands, from Thunder Bay to Prince George.
Mr. Sloly was unique in his time with the TPS because he dared to openly discuss these very issues while still in policing, something I was not brave enough to tackle. Just as telling, though, is that he retired from policing shortly after his unsuccessful bid to become chief. It is policing's loss.
I often speak to audiences about the experiences I chronicled in my book. Without fail, I'm asked if anything has changed. Could such a failure as the Pickton case happen again?
Time and again I answer, no, nothing has changed, and yes, this will happen again. And no one feels sicker than me that a new community is grieving, this time in Toronto.