Toronto

Toronto Police Services Board approves sweeping review of missing persons cases

The city committee responsible for overseeing the Toronto Police Service is moving forward with a wide-ranging review of how police handle missing persons cases.

The inquiry may cost up to $3M and take 15 months to complete

Shakir Rahim and Breese Davies at a meeting of the Toronto Police Services Board on Thursday June 21, 2018. They presented the recommendations of a working group set up to determine the scope and focus of a review of how Toronto police handle missing persons cases. (Bill Arnold/CBC)

The city committee responsible for overseeing the Toronto Police Service is moving forward with a wide-ranging review of how systemic bias may influence missing persons investigations.

The Toronto Police Services Board voted Thursday to approve the "terms of reference" for an independent review, which determine the scope and focus of the inquiry, and to request $3 million from the city to pay for it.

The review comes as the LGBT community prepares to celebrate the Pride Parade on Sunday amid strained relations between the city's police force and LGBT citizens after a series of missing persons cases in and around the Gay Village, and the ongoing Bruce McArthur serial murder investigation.

"It's a huge step forward but on a very, very long journey," said Mayor John Tory, who brought forward the original motion for the review after the meeting. "It really will allow us to get some answers but also to begin a healing process."

The review will examine a number of issues relating to how police investigate missing persons cases, including whether or not officers are influenced by implicit or explicit bias, whether cultural training is available for police interacting with marginalized populations, and barriers that cause people to not be reported missing.

A working group made up of one board member, three community members and a criminal lawyer met seven times since Apr. 27 to draft the terms of reference. The working group estimates the review will last for 15 months.

"What this review will do at the end of the day is transformationally change how the service conducts missing persons investigations and how the police interacts with the LGBTQ community," said Shakir Rahmin, a member of the working group that drafted the terms of reference.

Mayor John Tory at a meeting of the Toronto Police Services Board on Thursday June 21, 2018. (Bill Arnold/CBC)

The review was ordered in March after intense criticism over how the police handled a number of missing persons cases involving sex workers and those in the LGBT community, including the alleged victims of McArthur.

Lawyer Breese Davies, the facilitator for the working group, told the board the group members attempted to strike a balance between addressing the concerns of community groups and not compromising the ongoing investigation and prosecution of McArthur, who now faces eight counts of first-degree murder.

"We spent a lot of time drafting the terms of reference to make sure that the missing persons investigations, including those missing persons who have been identified as alleged victims of Bruce McArthur ... will be looked at without prejudicing the investigations," said Davies.

The working group recommends the review examine the cases of the victims but focus on the time before McArthur became a suspect in their deaths. It also recommends the review coordinate with Ontario's attorney general to ensure no prosecution is compromised.

Community involvement a priority

The terms of reference include a number of measures to ensure input from marginalized communities, including the LGBT people, south Asians, the homeless, drug users and others.

It recommends the appointment of an adviser, whose sole responsibility will be to organize and facilitate the community consultation process, and appointing an advisory committee made up of representatives of the affected communities to provide input .

It also calls for town halls and public meetings and for any group to be able to submit recommendations.

Haran Vijayanathan, executive director at the Alliance for South Asian AIDS Prevention, has been calling for an examination of police handling of missing persons cases since January 2018. (Sue Goodspeed/CBC)

Haran Vijayanathan, executive director at the Alliance for South Asian AIDS Prevention, said the vote was a huge victory for his group, who has been calling for an independent review since January.

"With this review we're able to come up with practices not just for the community but for the police themselves when they're working with marginalized communities," said Vijayanathan.

"The great thing is that the community has been involved right from the beginning."

With files from Farrah Merali

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