The missing women inquiry into serial killer Robert Pickton has slammed police for botching their investigations and has recommended a single regional police force be created for Greater Vancouver.
Inquiry commissioner Wally Oppal released his final report in Vancouver this afternoon, but advance copies provided to the families of Pickton's victims were leaked to media outlets around 10 a.m. PT.
In his conclusion, Oppal blamed years of inadequate and failed police investigations for allowing Pickton to prey undetected for years on women in the sex trade on Vancouver's troubled Downtown Eastside.
"The police investigations into the missing and murdered women were blatant failures," Oppal said.
"The critical police failings were manifest in recurring patterns of error that went unchecked and uncorrected over several years.
"The underlying causes of these failures … were themselves complex and multi-faceted."
Oppal said those causes included discrimination, a lack of leadership, outdated policing approaches, and a fragmented police structure in the Greater Vancouver region.
Women forsaken 'by society at large'
While Oppal condemned the police investigations, he also found society at large should bear some responsibility for the women's tragic lives.
"I have found that the missing and murdered women were forsaken twice: once by society at large and again by the police," Oppal wrote.
"What we're here to discuss is a tragedy of epic proportions.
"The women didn't go missing. They aren't just absent, they didn't just go away. They were taken, taken from their families, taken from their friends, taken from their communities.…We know they were murdered.
"Even though Pickton is in jail, the violence against women in the Downtown Eastside and other areas of this province continues. It's time to end this violence," he said.
"It's the inequality and the poverty that breeds the type of violence we're talking about here," he said.
"We need to treat those women as equals. That's part of our duty as civilized people in a social democracy to ensure they're accorded the same rights as everybody else."
During much of his remarks Oppal turned and spoke directly to the families of the women, and at one point during his remarks he was forced to pause while the families broke into chanting and drumming.
"There was systemic bias by the police," but the bias was not intentional, said Oppal.
"As a system, they failed because of the bias. These women were vulnerable; they were treated as throwaways — unstable, unreliable."
"The women were poor, they were addicted, vulnerable, aboriginal. They did not receive equal treatment by police."
Oppal called his inquiry, which spanned 93 days of hearings and heard from 85 witnesses, a "heart-wrenching experience."
63 recommendations issued
The final 1,448-page report offered 63 recommendations, including:
- Fund existing centres that provide emergency services to women in the sex trade, so the centres can stay open 24 hours a day.
- Enhance public transit to northern B.C. communities, especially along Highway 16, the so-called Highway of Tears.
- Appoint two advisers, including one aboriginal elder, to consult with affected parties regarding form and content of apologies required to heal and help with the reconciliation process.
- A compensation fund for the children of missing women.
- A healing fund for the families of missing women.
- Establishing a Greater Vancouver regional police force.
- Striking an independent expert committee to develop a model and implementation plan for a new police force.
- The province should appoint an independent adviser within 12 weeks to implement Oppal's recommendations.
- Police officers should be required to undergo mandatory and ongoing training regarding vulnerable community members.
- More intensive and ongoing training for police on the history and current status of aboriginal people.
- Make prevention of violence against aboriginal women a genuine priority.
- Establish more police accountability to communities.
- Improve police missing person policies and practices.
Before it was released, Oppal said the lengthy report needs to be read and digested before forming opinions.
"I think it's a strong report. We make some good recommendations, but most of all, the parties need to keep an open mind and not reach a premature conclusion until they've had the opportunity to read the report."
The inquiry was called to look into the police investigation of the serial killer and their mishandling of cases involving missing women from Vancouver's Downtown Eastside.
Pickton was arrested in February 2002. He was convicted of six counts of second-degree murder and sentenced to life in prison in 2007.
The remains or DNA of 33 women were found on his pig farm. He once told an undercover police officer that he killed 49 women.
The inquiry also examined how families of the victims were treated as they searched for missing loved ones.
Critical police failures
Oppal's report outlined seven critical failures in the police investigations.
1. Police failed to take proper reports on missing women, and failed to act on them.
Oppal found that families of missing women were given "degrading and insensitive treatment" by police.
"In a few cases, the barriers were so pronounced as to amount to a denial to make a report," he wrote.
When reports were taken, they were not acted on with any urgency, he wrote.
2. Police didn't use available information to connect the dots and realize that missing women were being slain by a serial killer, who posed further public risk.
Oppal blamed a lack of urgency, which meant working groups were tasked with reviewing but not investigating the missing women cases.
They failed to fully investigate Pickton, he concluded, and didn't put enough resources into finding the serial killer.
3. Police "utterly failed" to protect women in the Downtown Eastside.
Oppal says the first sign of a strategy to protect these vulnerable women came in 2002, just weeks before Pickton was caught.
"I conclude that the VPD was under an obligation to warn women in the Downtown Eastside and they utterly failed to do so," wrote Oppal.
"There is no sound evidence of investigative reasons not to issue a warning."
4. Police didn't use available investigative strategies to solve the case.
Oppal cited delays, inadequate surveillance and a mismanagement of informants and sources for slowing the investigations.
5. Police failed to follow a technique known as "major case management."
Oppal describes poor investigative team co-ordination between the VPD's missing women review team, the Coquitlam RCMP investigation of Pickton, and other investigations.
6. Police failed to co-ordinate between agencies.
Jurisdiction issues meant two police agencies (VPD and Coquitlam RCMP) were investigating the same crimes and didn't know whose case it was.
This "contributed significantly to the blatant overall failures of the missing and murdered women and Pickton investigations," Oppal concluded.
7. There was not an effective internal review of external accountability of police work.
Oppal found "no evidence of widespread institutional bias in the VPD or RCMP."
But he did say there was "isolated" bias to the missing women investigations that allowed "faulty stereotyping of street-involved women" and meant police failed to recognize their "duty to protect an endangered segment of our community."
Oppal, however, said he did not think there was an intention to dismiss or devalue the missing and murdered women.