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Government will appoint external forces to review unsolved homicides, cold cases
BY ROB SHAW AND LORI CULBERT, VANCOUVER SUN MARCH 3, 2014
Giving the director of police services power to assign external investigators was one of the recommendations made by Missing Women Commissioner Wally Oppal, above, in a 2012 report.
Photograph by: Ian Smith, PNG
The B.C. government will appoint outside police forces to audit missing women files, unsolved homicides and other serious police investigations that turn into cold cases, under new legislation introduced Monday.
Justice Minister Suzanne Anton said her government’s director of police services, Clayton Pecknold, will be given new powers to assign external police investigators to review cases that are stalled or left to go cold within other police departments.
The change was one of the recommendations made by Missing Women Commissioner Wally Oppal in a 2012 report.
“There were many different problems identified by commissioner Oppal but one of them was missing person’s files had been allowed to languish,” said Anton.
“My head of police services here can (now) order an audit of files that have gone to sleep.”
The decision on which cases to audit will be largely driven by public complaints, she added.
“Certainly in the case of the missing women … there was evidence that families along the way would say, ‘Look you haven’t done anything,’” recalled Anton.
Oppal, a former B.C. Court of Appeal justice, heard from 85 witnesses over 93 days and collected 150,000 pages of evidence as his inquiry examined why it took so long for the Vancouver police and RCMP to identify Robert Pickton as a serial killer, despite warnings he was preying on sex workers in Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside.
In December 2012 — two years after the $8-million inquiry was struck — Oppal released a voluminous report with 65 recommendations for change, including some big items that have not been acted upon, such as regional policing.
Pickton’s victims disappeared from Vancouver police territory, but he did his killing at his home in Port Coquitlam, which is policed by the RCMP. Oppal’s report said there was a “systemic failure” by the two agencies to deal with those cross-jurisdictional issues.
Oppal said Monday that while there is still more work to be done to address all 65 recommendations, he was happy to see the government follow through on his suggestion to increase the power of the director of police services.
The justice ministry said it also planned to create new standards for missing person and other major investigations, as well as to promote “bias-free policing.”
Oppal said such charges are crucial, as his report concluded police agencies had discriminated against Pickton’s victims.
“That was my finding that the police were biased. Had any of those women come from Kerrisdale or the university district, you can imagine that the reaction of the police would be quite different,” Oppal said.
Neither the RCMP nor Vancouver police would comment on the proposed legislation, referring all questions to the Justice Ministry.
Jason Gratl, a Vancouver lawyer who represented Downtown Eastside communities at the inquiry, said it’s good that this legislation gives the director of police services a bit more power to act when a cold case isn’t solved.
However, he said testimony at the inquiry made it clear that legislative changes alone won’t protect vulnerable women unless police take such cases more seriously.
“The officers simply didn’t investigate. It wasn’t for lack of power, it was for lack of will,” Gratl said.
He added it is crucial for police officers to be unbiased toward victims, so that every case gets the same treatment regardless of the background of the victims. Since the high-profile inquiry, Gratl said he has witnessed slow improvements in how the justice system treats disenfranchised women.
Anton said her government has been working on fulfilling the “majority of the themes” from Oppal’s report, but perhaps not every recommendation.
“We may not be doing every single individual item in the missing person’s report but we are definitely meeting all of the themes identified in the report,” she said.
Rather than amalgamate Greater Vancouver’s many police forces, for example, Anton said the province is pushing for integrated police teams.
But Opposition NDP critic Kathy Corrigan said the province continues to have a “very weak” response to Oppal’s recommendations.
He had suggested the cold case audits be mandatory, she noted, and the proposed changes leave it up to the discretion of government. “That’s a bit of a watering down of the recommendation,” Corrigan said.
There has also been little action on a recommendation for a shuttle bus on the so-called Highway of Tears in northern B.C., she said,
The outside audit of cold cases would occur in files where no investigative steps have been taken for one year, and in cases where criminal charges against an accused person were recommended but not approved by Crown and the case subsequently went cold for a year, according to the bill tabled in the legislature.
The law, if approved, would also force police chiefs to order an internal review of every major case investigation within 60 days of it becoming inactive, and submit a report to the government.
Outside police investigators appointed by government would review evidence, records, and investigative steps, and would not require warrants to obtain access to the police departments and any records they require, according to the bill.
© Copyright (c) The Vancouver Sun
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Pickton victims' families frustrated with government delays implementing Oppal inquiry advice | Georgia Straight, Vancouver's News & Entertainment Weekly
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