Systemic failures in police investigations responsible for violence against vulnerable women

The Missing Women Commission of Inquiry Report released in December points to “blatant failures” of police investigations into missing and murdered women in B.C. and recommends the creation of a regional police organization and an independent agency to co-ordinate data, identify patterns and ensure accountability to the public.

“It is this issue that I have spoken about in the Inquiry about regional policing: the inability of the police forces on a management level to work with one another,” said Commissioner Wally Oppal, Q.C., who headed the inquiry. “That’s why we’ve recommended a type of regional police, because right now we have a fractionalized type of policing system.”

Oppal made his recommendations public at a Vancouver press conference on Dec. 17, the International Day to End Violence Against Sex Workers. The Commission conducted 93 days of hearings, heard 85 witnesses and 385 individual submissions and made 63 recommendations to the government.

“I have come to the conclusion that there was systemic bias by the police in the women’s investigation,” said Oppal of the causes of police failures at the Dec. 17 press conference to cheers from those in attendance. “The women were poor, they were addicted, vulnerable, Aboriginal . . . Few people considered the fact that these women had families, support systems — had children.”

Blame was not reserved for the B.C. policing system. Oppal noted that poverty and inequality are the root causes for which society must take responsibility. He also clarified that police bias was unintentional on the parts of many officers.

Missing Women Commission of inquiry

The Commission was established in September 2010 to evaluate the response to missing persons reports and examine investigation practices in order to better protect the safety of vulnerable women. Many of the uninvestigated missing women — a misnomer for women who have been murdered, according to Oppal — were sex workers and/or drug addicts working in Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside or along the Highway of Tears (800 kilometres of Highway 16 connecting northern B.C. towns and aboriginal communities).

The Commission’s inception was spurred by the trial of Robert William Pickton. Pickton was convicted in 2007 and is serving a life sentence for the second-degree murders of six women and is charged for the deaths of a further 20 women, many of whom were sex workers he picked up in Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside. Oppal served as B.C.’s attorney general from 2005 to 2009, during the time of the Robert Pickton trial.

Oppal listed several failures by the police in investigating the reports of missing women since 1991, though the crowd at the press conference volubly argued the issue existed previously.

Prominent failures include: poor report-taking and followup; failure to communicate with the families; inadequate preventative strategies; failure to follow major case management practices and policies; and failure to address cross-jurisdictional issues, such as ineffective co-ordination between police agencies and ineffective internal reviews and external accountability mechanisms.

To remedy these issues, the 1400-page report outlined recommendations to reform laws and police investigation practices, increase proactive programs and policies and enact measures to protect the legacies of the missing women and their families.

In addition to the 63 formal recommendations, the report made two informal recommendations that urged for an immediate government response. The first called for extended government support to allow centres offering emergency services for sex trade workers to stay open 24 hours. The second recommended providing a safer transit system among northern communities.

The report suggests the modification of laws and police training on the treatment of witnesses who have addictions or have been sexually assaulted, as well as those working in the sex industry. A number of program recommendations were made to enhance the safety of vulnerable women, particularly those on reserves and in rural communities along the Highway of Tears. Compensation and healing funds for the children and families of the victims, respectively, were also included in the recommendations.

The inquiry called for the government to appoint an independent adviser to oversee the implementation of the recommendations and conduct consultations with Aboriginal communities, the Downtown Eastside and victims’ families.

Minister of Justice Shirley Bond spoke after Oppal at the press conference and announced that Steven Point, former lieutenant-governor, will champion the implementation of the report. Bond also addressed the two informal recommendations included in the report. She confirmed the government has committed $750 000 to the Women’s Information and Safe House (WISH) drop-in centre for female survival sex workers on the Downtown Eastside. She also said the government will engage with northern communities regarding safer travel options.

“The type of broad, societal changes identified as necessary, as much as I wish it could be different, will not happen overnight,” said Bond, calling for organizations, communities and families to read the report and reduce violence and build tolerance together.

The majority of surveyed B.C. residents support each of the key recommendations made in the report, including 91 per cent in favour of improving missing person policies and practices. Amongst Metro Vancouver residents, 57 per cent support a regional police force, according to an Angus-Reid poll.

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