(Reuters) - Police made critical errors in pursuing Canadian serial killer Robert Pickton partly because of “systemic bias” against his victims, sex trade workers from a rough Vancouver neighborhood, according to the final report from a public inquiry released on Monday.
Commissioner Wally Oppal was asked by the British Columbia government to investigate, in effect, why Pickton was not caught sooner. Women disappeared from the Downtown Eastside neighborhood for more than a decade before the pig farmer’s 2002 arrest.
“The investigations of missing and murdered women were characterized by blatant police failures, and by public indifference,” Oppal said at a press conference in Vancouver that was frequently interrupted by protesters.
Pickton was convicted of six murders, but prosecutors believe he killed many more - 20 other charges were stayed after he received the maximum possible sentence.
Oppal outlined a string of police errors, from failing to take proper reports when women went missing and communicate adequately with families, to ineffective coordination across jurisdictions. He called his more than 1,200-page report, which is based on eight months of hearings, “Forsaken”.
“After reviewing the evidence of the investigations, I have come to the conclusion that there was systemic bias by the police,” he said.
Oppal recommended that the provincial government establish a compensation fund for the children of the victims and consider creating a regional police force for Vancouver, instead of the patchwork of jurisdictions currently in place.
After Oppal’s announcement, B.C. Minister of Justice Shirley Bond wiped away tears as she spoke to victims’ families.
“I want you to know that, however inadequate these words sound, we are sorry for your loss,” she said. “We will work hard to prevent these circumstances from being repeated in our province.”
She announced the appointment of a former lieutenant governor, Steven Point, to serve as the report’s “champion”, guiding implementation. Bond said the government would immediately give new funding to WISH, a drop-in center for women who work in the Downtown Eastside’s sex trade.
The Vancouver Police Department said in a short statement that it is committed to learning from its mistakes and will study the report.
“We know that nothing can ever truly heal the wounds of grief and loss but if we can, we want to assure the families that the Vancouver Police Department deeply regrets anything we did that may have delayed the eventual solving of these murders,” it said.
Deputy Commissioner Craig Callens, who commands the Royal Canadian Mounted Police in British Columbia, said in a statement that his force will review the report.
Oppal said many individual police officers were diligent, and he commended several by name. But he said that as a system, the authorities failed because of bias against Pickton’s victims, many of whom were poor and addicted to drugs.
“Would the reaction of the police and the public have been any different if the missing women had come from Vancouver’s (more affluent) west side? The answer is obvious,” he said.
Aboriginal women were overrepresented among the victims, and Oppal repeatedly referred to the broader “marginalization” of aboriginal people in Canada.
“There has to be community responsibility for what has taken place,” he said, highlighting poverty and the conditions on the Downtown Eastside. “The social reality is that racism and gender bias are prevalent within Canadian society, and we must do something to eradicate those.”
Victims’ families and activists were on hand for Oppal’s press conference, and he stopped speaking several times as audience members shouted criticism, chanted and played drums.
The provincial government did not offer funding to a number of community organizations that said they needed support to participate in the lengthy and complex inquiry. In protest, other groups boycotted the process.
In November, several organizations, including the B.C. Civil Liberties Association, released their own report, criticizing the inquiry for, among other things, excluding too many aboriginal women, sex trade workers and drug users.
Bond, the justice minister, said she did not regret the decision not to fund those groups, but said she saw them participating in the future. “I think going forward this is room for us to include other voices.” (Reporting by Allison Martell; Editing by Eric Beech)