Police have a lot of explaining to do in the case of Toronto's gay-community murders. Only last month, authorities were saying they did not think a serial killer was behind a series of disappearances in the community. Chief Mark Saunders himself said that the evidence was not telling investigators a serial killer was involved.
Now it seems that there was. Although police would still not use the term "serial killer," on Thursday they arrested a Toronto resident, Bruce McArthur, charged him with the first-degree murder of two missing men and said they believe "he is responsible for the deaths of other men who have yet to be identified." What people in the gay community have feared for months, even years, has turned out to be true.
If there is a feeling of relief after the arrest, it is bound to be mixed with frustration, even anger. Toronto's gay community had been concerned for some time over the unexplained disappearances of the two men, Andrew Kinsman and Selim Esen. Community members led search parties, organized appeals on social media and put pressure on police to investigate with more vigour.
Many felt the two disappearances, which took place just a couple of months apart in the spring and early summer of 2017, must be linked. Some thought back to others who vanished over the past decade. Police insisted there was no reason to think the disappearances of the two men were linked to each other, or to the earlier disappearances.
Chief Saunders sounded like a man addressing a public-relations issue, not a criminal problem, when he announced in December that the police force was going to review how it handles missing-persons investigations. He said at the time that "we have to have some stronger relationships and stronger conversations to reduce the perception that may be out there."
Strong community relations are important, but what members of the gay community really needed was to be taken seriously when they expressed their fear that a killer was at large among them. Police now admit they had been looking into Mr. McArthur for some time. Did they really have no inkling there might be a link between the disappearances? Or were they simply trying to calm a fearful and frustrated community with soothing words? If so, they have a lot to answer for.
Chief Saunders said he was simply going on the evidence at hand when he dismissed concerns about a serial killer back in December. "In policing, what we do is we follow the evidence," he said. What he said at that time, he argued, "was accurate at that time."
That will not do. If it turns out that a serial killer has been abroad in Toronto, perhaps for years, the chief will need to be clear with the public, and especially the gay community, how the force decided despite a string of suspicious disappearances that there was not.
Kristyn Wong-Tam, the city councillor for the ward that contains Toronto's traditional Gay Village, says the police stepped up their investigation at least in part because of entreaties from the community. As she put it in a television interview on Thursday, people demanded: "Are you doing enough? Are these lives important to you?" Those questions hang in the air even more urgently now.
As the immediate shock of the arrests fades, people will want answers. Chief Saunders should be ready to respond. He can't hide behind the usual excuse for saying nothing: that it's before the courts. It is important for police to be as frank and as transparent as possible about what happened.
Relations between police and the gay community are much better than they were in decades past. Toronto police have apologized for the bathhouse raids that caused such anger years ago. They insist they respect gay rights. They vow they are committed to ensuring the safety of the community.
These crimes threaten to erode whatever trust that has developed in recent years. Regardless of what we learn about the murders in the immediate future – and let's remember that the accused is still only that – Toronto police have a job ahead of them repairing that trust.