VANCOUVER — Families who tried to file missing persons reports in the case of serial killer Robert Pickton faced “alleged” prejudice when they approached police in the midst of a probe plagued by mistakes, says a scathing internal report on the investigation.
The report says inappropriate conduct by staff members, notably by one civilian, “poisoned” the relationship between police and relatives of women who’d gone missing from the Downtown Eastside.
“To the detriment of the (Vancouver Police Department) as a whole, there were several reported instances where families of sex trade workers attempted to report their daughters as missing and were treated badly,” the report says.
The report, authored by Deputy Chief Const. Doug LePard and released Friday, says a homicide sergeant submitted a report in 1998 saying police received complaints from people who were “rebuffed by staff.”
The sergeant also said frustrated relatives felt the department didn’t care about their missing loved ones because they were First Nations or from a poor neighbourhood.
“These factors compromised the investigation by creating, at the least, a lack of trust in the VPD by some of the families of the missing women,” the report says.
“Even years after (the clerk) had any direct contact with the family members of the missing women, her alleged conduct was a significant issue for (police) to deal with.”
LePard said Saturday that such inappropriate behaviour by some staff, especially a civilian clerk who worked at the Missing Persons Unit from 1995 to 2001, was part of a multitude of problems that derailed the Pickton investigation.
“We’ve learned from the missing women’s investigation, about the things that we need to do to remove the barriers to people feeling comfortable dealing with police,” he said.
“We heard loud and clear, ‘Look, back then we didn’t feel like we could make a report, that it wasn’t going to be taken seriously,”’ he said about families.
Pickton was eventually arrested in 2002, but by then 13 more women had been reported missing and DNA from 11 women was found on his suburban Port Coquitlam farm.
In 2007, the predator who targeted drug-addicted sex workers was convicted of six counts of second-degree murder and is serving a life sentence.
Prosecutors announced earlier this year that they would not proceed with charges in the murders of 20 more women because convictions wouldn’t mean more prison time for Pickton.
LePard’s report says one detective complained that he sometimes had to leave the room when the clerk in the Missing Persons Unit spoke to people on the phone.
He said in the report that another officer was concerned about allowing a civilian to manage missing persons investigations and said the practice was not in the best interest of the department.
The report blames both the city’s force and the RCMP for a series of errors in the years that preceded Pickton’s arrest and made it clear he could have been caught earlier than 2002.
“There were individuals who made mistakes and didn’t perform well,” LePard said Saturday. “There was no one single cause of the problems in this investigation.”
Ernie Crey, who was told in 2004 that his sister Dawn Crey’s DNA was found on Pickton’s property, said he heard plenty of talk about the clerk referred to in the report from other family members searching in vain for their missing relatives.
“I’d heard there was an obnoxious woman who was taking information from family members,” he said.
“The families who were going (to police) were full of stress and they’re looking for news about a missing family member,” he said.
Maggie Gisle, who once lived and worked on the streets, said she tried unsuccessfully to file reports on several missing friends and even went to Pickton’s farm, where he regularly took women from the Downtown Eastside.
“I was really struck by the fact that how did people not know that something was going on?” she said. “I mean you could see shoes, you could see wallets, you could see clothing just scattered all over the yard and in the ditches.”
Gisle and other friends and relatives of missing women, along with the Vancouver Police Department, are calling for a public inquiry into the handling of the Pickton case.
“I hope people scream for a public inquiry,” Gisle said.
Acting British Columbia solicitor general Rich Coleman has said the province will launch a public review of the case, although it’s not yet known whether that will be in the form of an inquiry.
LePard said police have beefed up resources to deal with missing persons files and provided sex workers with Violence in the Workplace training so they can handle violent clients.
He said that after the report was released Friday, senior officers including Police Chief Jim Chu held two meetings with advocates and First Nations groups in the Downtown Eastside to discuss how bias in the department affected families and the improvements that have been made since then.