'Systemic discrimination' contributed to failings in Toronto police missing-person cases, report finds
Public is entitled to 'transformative change,' according to lengthy review
An independent review of the Toronto police force's handling of missing-person cases, including the victims of serial killer Bruce McArthur, has found that "systemic discrimination" contributed to failings in a number of investigations.
That's one of the many takeaways from a massive report led by former judge Gloria Epstein that was released Tuesday morning. You can read the full report here.
Epstein found there were "serious flaws" in how missing-person cases have been handled in Toronto, and notes that "the police could have done better.
"To be clear, we are past the time for conversation only," she wrote. "The public is entitled to insist on transformative change with measurable, sustainable outcomes, timelines for completion, and accountability."
"Intent" to discriminate is not the issue here, Epstein said. "Proper missing persons investigations should not depend on whose voices are the loudest or most empowered in sounding the alarm," she said.
WATCH | Review finds 'systemic discrimination' in missing persons investigations:
The review was ordered in the summer of 2018 after the arrest of serial killer Bruce McArthur but did not initially include his crimes in order to preserve his right to a fair trial.
Its scope was later expanded to include that case after McArthur pleaded guilty to eight counts of first-degree murder in the deaths of eight men with ties to Toronto's Gay Village.
The review focused on those eight men, as well as Tess Richey, a young woman whose body was found in an outdoor stairwell by her mother, and Alloura Wells, a transgender woman found dead in a ravine.
The issues identified in the report include a lack of communication within the police service, between the force and the police board, and with the community — as well as an often unnecessary amount of secrecy that undermined public trust.
Epstein also found investigations were inconsistent, and in many instances, "basic investigative steps were overlooked or delayed," while searches were at times "disorganized, incomplete or poorly documented."
Mistrust of police
In her report, Epstein found that some police officers had misconceptions or stereotypical ideas about the LGBTQ community, and that police also failed to keep the public informed.
"My extensive engagement with community members and organizations confirmed that many people deeply mistrust the Toronto police. This long-standing mistrust may not be directly related to missing person cases but is often rooted in systemic or overt bias or discrimination," she wrote.
WATCH | Former judge says conducting review changed her outlook:
At a news conference, Epstein said she is well-aware her recommendations come at a time when there are increasing calls to reduce the police budget, and that the pandemic has placed immense stress on resources. "But the failure to act comes at a much more substantial cost," she said.
At a news conference Tuesday afternoon, Police Services Board Chair Jim Hart said the board accepts all of the review's findings and is committed to implementing its recommendations.
Hart said it is "difficult for us" to see the many ways in which the board and the police service did not meet expectations and responsibilities.
"But it's vital for us to see what went wrong," Hart said.
Interim police chief James Ramer echoed those comments, saying there have been mistakes and missteps in the way Toronto police handled missing persons cases, especially within the city's LGBTQ community. Ramer said he has not yet read all of the roughly 900-page report, but has gone through a lot of it.
"The shortcomings [Epstein] identified are inexcusable," he said.
The report also takes issue with comments made by former police chief Mark Saunders. At a news conference back in 2017, Saunders said "the evidence today tells us there is not a serial killer involved."
But on that date, Epstein wrote, there was circumstantial evidence that McArthur may have been or was likely involved in the disappearances of five men connected to the city's Gay Village. She said the available evidence simply did not match Saunders's conclusion.
At Tuesday's news conference, review counsel Mark Sandler called Saunders's comments "deeply unfortunate and deeply hurtful."
"It contributed to the attitude that they had not been given the straight goods over what had transpired," he said.
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Ramer also apologized for those statements.
"These statements were incorrect," he said.
Ramer also said police are going to implement Epstein's recommendations "as quickly as possible." He said the service is doing things like doubling the number of people working in its missing persons unit from four to eight, and exploring how to integrate civilian support into missing persons investigations.
Richey's mother, who found her daughter's body after police failed to, welcomed the report.
"A shift in police attitude and understanding would go a long way in better serving and protecting all members of our community," Christine Hermeston said.
Ramer asked the communities affected in the report to work with police.
"Give us an opportunity to make it right," he said.
WATCH | Police officials respond to report:
'Series of lost opportunities'
Epstein has said in her report that one can never know for sure whether McArthur would have been found earlier had these deficiencies not existed.
But Sandler said there was "a series of lost opportunities" to apprehend and identify McArthur.
The report, which includes 151 recommendations, recommends "triaging" cases so that appropriate agencies — including social agencies — are involved, meaning that in some cases police might not be involved at all. That could mean greater reliance on social workers, civilian services and multi-agency focus tables.
At Tuesday's news conference, Epstein said conducting such a wide-ranging review helped her recognize that though she viewed herself as a "people person," she realized just how small a segment of society she really knew and how little diversity she'd seen.
"After 25 years as a judge, I thought I knew a lot about people," Epstein said. "[This review] changed me. It has changed who I am, what I understand about people."
With files from Shanifa Nasser and The Canadian Press