Police Services Board backs motion to launch external review of missing persons investigations

After repeated demands from LGBT community groups, the Toronto Police Services Board has approved a motion to launch an independent, external review into missing persons investigations.

An earlier rally outside police headquarters called for Chief Mark Saunders' resignation

Members of the public had concerns about the diversity of the review panel but members say they're pleasantly surprised by different voices that will be heard including an indigenous leader, an activist for the safety of sex workers among others. (CBC)

The Toronto Police Services Board has approved a proposal by Mayor John Tory to launch an independent and external review of missing person procedures.

Members of the public also used Thursday's meeting to share their recommendations and frustrations with the ongoing police investigation into alleged serial killer Bruce McArthur.

"The police are guilty of wilful blindness and failure to serve and protect," said local activist Susan Gapka.

Gapka was one of several deputants to endorse the call for an independent review, but she also argued for a parallel consultation aimed at repairing the strained relationship between police and Toronto's LGBT community.

Shakir Rahim, who spoke on behalf of the Alliance for South Asian Aids Prevention, described the current situation as "a crisis in trust." 

While the board approved the motion to initiate the review unanimously, board member Shelley Carroll warned that real change must follow Thursday's vote.

"There's going to be a lot of cynicism if we don't acknowledge that we've already had this conversation so many times," she said.

Police procedures under fire

LGBT community advocates had earlier held a 9:30 a.m. press conference to call for an "immediate public inquiry" into how police handle missing persons files.

The group, which launched an initiative called Toronto's Missing and Murdered Rainbow Community Members, are asking police "what went wrong" following the arrest of McArthur.

"Our community is grieving, our community is angry," Douglas Elliott, a lawyer and community member said at the press conference on Thursday.

Douglas Elliott, a lawyer and LGBT community member, is part of a group calling for an immediate inquiry into how police handled the recent killings of gay and bisexual men in Toronto.

"As recently as last December we were being told by Chief Saunders that our long standing concerns about a serial killer preying on our community were not based on any evidence. He was wrong."

Since January, questions have emerged about how police dealt with the disappearances of six men, most of whom vanished from the Gay Village and surrounding areas. McArthur is charged with first-degree murder in their deaths.

Saunders backs external review

Two weeks ago Saunders released a statement saying he will back an external review into missing persons cases. The statement came just days after it was revealed that Toronto police officers interviewed McArthur, who is now aged 66, years before he was charged earlier this year with six slayings following a spate of disappearances from in and around the city's Gay Village.

Bruce McArthur, 66, is accused of killing five men and police believe there may be more victims. (Bruce McArthur/Facebook)

​"My hope is that such a review will consider not only our investigative processes, but take a hard look at systemic issues of bias of any kind. I believe these issues are serious enough to warrant a review," Saunders wrote in his statement released on March 9.

His comments came a day after Ontario's attorney general agreed to review a request from Tory for a public inquiry into the force's handling of the disappearances. On Wednesday Tory called yet again for an independent review during an interview with CBC's Radio's Metro Morning.

However, an inquiry would not take place until McArthur is dealt with by the courts, which does not sit well with Elliott.

"The known victims were middle-aged men, we can anticipate that many potential witnesses will be of similar ages and possibly even older," he said. "If we wait 10 or more years to get started those victims may not be able to give evidence."

"We will all suffer immensely waiting for answers."

This combination of photos shows the six men McArthur is charged with killing. Top row, from left to right: Skandaraj Navaratnam, 40, Andrew Kinsman, 49, Selim Esen, 44. Bottom row, from left to right: Dean Lisowick, Soroush Mahmudi, 50, and Majeed Kayhan, 58. (CBC/Toronto Police Service)

Saunders in hot seat

A small rally calling for Saunders' resignation also took place outside Toronto Police Headquarters around noon Thursday.

The rally was organized by Queers Crash the Beat, a group which, according to their website was formed "in response to historical and ongoing failures in policing."

"Our communities have no confidence in Mark Saunders. The people of Toronto have no confidence in Mark Saunders," a statement on the group's Facebook site read.

Toronto Police Chief Mark Saunders released a statement saying he will back an external review into missing persons cases, but only after alleged serial killer Bruce McArthur is dealt with by the courts. (Canadian Press)

The group references issues they say they have with police, which includes "unchecked" police shootings, carding, harassment and "justice for … all victims" in the Bruce McArthur investigation.

"This has gone on long enough. We echo the long-held and thoroughly justified anger of so many in our communities," the statement reads. "We are calling for the resignation of Saunders as a necessary step toward transformative accountability."

Tory thanks police board

Mayor Tory thanked the police board for supporting his motion for an independent review in a statement Thursday, adding that he had many questions related to the case.

"I want to make sure that, provided it doesn't jeopardize any criminal proceedings, all unanswered questions are in fact answered," the mayor said. "I continue to support asking the province to consider launching a public inquiry at the appropriate time."

Tory added that many of his motion's recommendations were made by members of the LGBT community, and he also thanked them for their "leadership, strength and collaboration.

"This case is beyond horrific and our community deserves justice, absolute answers and closure," Tory said. "While I recognize all these things could take time after such a tragedy, I am dedicated to this process so that we can restore trust, confidence, and begin what I'm sure will be a lengthy healing process."

With files from Metro Morning