Missing Women Inquiry commissioner Wally Oppal is calling on the province to create a Greater Vancouver police force after concluding a fractured, badly coordinated police response was a key underlying factor that let serial killer Robert Pickton keep killing for years after he should have been caught.
The former attorney-general, in his four-volume report titled Forsaken, says the fragmentation of policing in the Lower Mainland led to multiple police failures, including uncoordinated parallel investigations and the failure to share key evidence.
He recommends an expert panel develop a proposed new regional policing model and implementation plan.
“It is clear from the evidence that a regional police force stood a good chance of apprehending Robert Pickton much earlier,” Oppal said, noting the region is the only major centre in Canada without a regional force.
The patchwork of municipal police and RCMP detachments in the region came into stark focus during the inquiry, as Vancouver Police took the view no crimes were committed in their jurisdiction, because Pickton’s farm was in RCMP-policed Port Coquitlam.
“The missing and murdered women were forsaken twice,” he said in the report. “Once by society at large and again by the police.”
Metro Vancouver mayors have repeatedly dismissed talk of a regional force in the past, citing concern over loss of local control or officers pulled away to regional duties.
“A decisive step must be taken to break this impasse,” Oppal said, adding he does not recommend “yet another study” on the feasibility of the idea.
The 1,450-page report contains more than 60 other recommendations.
The inquiry found the missing women investigation was underfunded because the case didn’t get the priority it deserved.
Oppal also cited an “absence of leadership” with no senior officers at the Vancouver Police Department or RCMP taking ongoing responsibility for the case.
As part of measures for reconciliation and healing, Oppal calls on the province to set up a compensation fund for children of missing and murdered women, and a healing fund for families.
The inquiry heard senior VPD officers resisted the theory that a serial killer was preying on women in the Downtown Eastside.
Oppal said Pickton should have been a strong suspect for police after the early 1997 knife fight at his Port Coquitlam farm where a prostitute escaped and “died twice on the operating table” before doctors resuscitated her.
She told RCMP officers in hospital Pickton was picking up women regularly and she believed they were vanishing at the farm.
Prosecutors later dropped an attempted murder charge after deciding the addicted victim wasn’t reliable enough to testify.
Nineteen more women went missing after the 1997 incident and Oppal said the VPD were far too slow to warn sex trade workers a serial killer was likely in their midst.
The RCMP never took Pickton up on his offer to let them search the farm.
Oppal said another “colossal failure” happened in 1998 when Mounties “remarkably” agreed not to interview Pickton for months after his brother said it would be better for the farm to wait for the rainy season.
In 2001, Mounties also dismissed the advice of an RCMP summer student who wrote a paper correctly suggesting a serial killer was to blame.
In early 2002, when Pickton was finally arrested, it happened after a rookie officer executing a search warrant to look for guns found underwear and women’s IDs linked to the missing women.
“Pickton wan’t even attempting to make any attempt to hide the fruits of his violent acts,” Oppal said. “It was there for anybody to see.”
Pickton was convicted on six counts of second-degree murder although the DNA or remains of 33 women were found on the farm and he boasted to an undercover officer he killed 49 women.
Many family members hoped the inquiry might be a chance for justice for the other victims for whom charges were never laid.
Charges in 20 other deaths were stayed after the initial six convictions resulted in Pickton’s life sentence and charges were never laid in still more cases.
Police indifference amounted to “systemic bias” against vulnerable women, Oppal found.
“They were treated as throwaways – unstable, unreliable,” he said, adding they would “obviously” have received different police treatment had the missing women been middle class and from Vancouver’s prosperous west side.
“Can we legitimately say that this is one of the great cities of the world when we have a Downtown Eastside in the condition that exists today?”
The inquiry was boycotted by most organizations representing vulnerable women and First Nations, many arguing the process was biased against them because of the heavy presence of lawyers defending police witnesses.
Oppal handed down his findings at a news conference where he was heckled by some of those critics and was forced to pause for bursts of singing and drumming.
He urged critics of the process to come together if change is to happen.
Justice Minister Shirley Bond appointed former Lieut-Gov. Steven Point as “champion” to be a catalyst for change based on Oppal’s recommendations.
“Make no mistake about it – there were systemic and blatant police failures,” Bond said in accepting his findings.
But on the concept of a regional force, Bond would only say she would “seriously” consider it and explore the idea with municipal leaders if a review determines that integrated policing units are not adequate.
She noted a new 20-year RCMP contract is now in place but added there is an opt-out clause.
Bond pledged to explore ways to improve transportation in northern B.C. – Oppal recommended an enhanced public transit system, particularly on Highway 16, the so-called Highway of Tears.
Bond also said Vancouver’s WISH drop-in centre will get $750,000 to extend its hours.
Cameron Ward, lawyer for many of the families of Pickton’s victims, said he believed Oppal’s inquiry could have been more thorough in uncovering why the police failures happened.
But he credited the “strong findings” against police lapses and the recommended fund for children of Pickton’s victims.
Ernie Crey, brother of murdered woman Dawn Crey, said he supports Oppal’s recommendations and particularly Bond’s choice of fellow Sto:lo leader Point.
“This was a day that exceeded my expectations,” he said. “I’m happy with everything I’ve heard.”
Marilyn Renter, the Chilliwack step-mom of Pickton victim Cindy Feliks, also praised Oppal.
“I think he did very well,” she said. “It’s his legacy.”
Union of B.C. Indian Chiefs Grand Chief Stewart Philip said the entire inquiry was flawed and biased because aboriginal and women’s groups were denied funding, adding an inquiry is needed into the inquiry.