Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Time to get victims off the streets

Finger pointing won't solve missing and murdered mysteries, but real action might

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The news broke in Winnipeg on Monday. A serial killer among us, taken into custody and charged with the killings of three innocent aboriginal women. These tragic circumstances have already created the all-too-predictable demands from native leaders for public hearings or inquiries into the circumstances that contributed to the murder of these women. I believe these leaders are well-intentioned but nonetheless misguided and uninformed.

By their very definition and mandate, public hearings and inquiries look into the rear-view mirror.

Common beliefs that contribute to the motivation to demand these types of hearings are:

RACISM: The belief the victims have been marginalized by a racist society and/or police force.

MISTRUST: The belief the truth is misrepresented or entirely sacrificed.

APATHY: The belief society and the police do not care.

Having worked in homicide investigation in Winnipeg for almost eight years, I can state unequivocally none of these factors contributes to the plight of missing or murdered aboriginal women in our city or province.

Homicide investigators work every case with the same level of commitment, passion and desire regardless of any victim-related factors that include race, sex, sexual orientation, religion or involvement in the sex trade, drugs, gangs or criminal organizations.

Victim-related factors can be relevant to a homicide case but never factor into the investigators' motivation to work a case. Simply put, homicide investigators are extremely driven people who operate with only one concern in mind: the burning desire to solve the crime.

To suggest anything else is simply uninformed and untrue.

Public hearings or inquiries by aboriginal leaders equate to an exercise in finger pointing and blame assessment. Finger pointing and blame assessment will never contribute to a solution to the problem. This approach creates hostility and division in our community.

Before we can propose effective solutions we have to examine causation. There is no need to conduct a public inquiry to connect these dots.

CAUSATION: A significant number of missing and murdered women in Manitoba are of aboriginal descent, are drug-addicted and involved in the sex trade. As a result, their lifestyle is a major factor that exposes them to victimization, whether it be rape, assault or murder.

Most of the sex trade workers I have met are addicted to crack cocaine. Their lifestyle consists of the constant need to satisfy their powerful cravings for their next high. It is a never-ending cycle that involves working the street to get their money, buying their rock, getting high, coming down and doing it all over again.

Their addiction drives them to make dangerous choices by putting themselves out on the street and exposing themselves to "stranger danger," a danger that is very real.

Their addiction exposes them to drug dealers and members of street gangs who supply their rock. These parasites suck the life slood out of a drug addict and often victimize them with violence to collect outstanding drug debts.

Their addiction also exposes them to further danger regarding their association to crack houses and other addicts who can often become violent and unpredictable as they struggle with their own addiction.

These women are victims in the truest sense of the word, lifestyle choices aside.

Solving a murder of someone trapped in this cycle is a daunting task.

They do not represent the typical victim who has a narrow suspect pool.

Drug-addicted sex trade workers generally operate on a 24/7 schedule. They are often transient, homeless and have infrequent contact with family and those who care about them. Establishing something as simple as the victim's whereabouts in these cases can be an extremely difficult task.

Their suspect pool is extremely large.

Working these cases is extremely difficult and frustrating. Potential witnesses associated to the victim are often drug addicts who have no interest in talking to the police or assisting a murder investigation. Their co-operation often creates significant jeopardy for themselves.

These are, by far, the most difficult types of murder to solve.

It is no surprise these types of killings go unsolved.

SERIAL OFFENCES: A great deal of energy and resources were recently diverted to a joint Winnipeg Police Service-RCMP task force that was entirely dedicated to examine cases of missing and murdered women in Manitoba. Their apparent mandate was to identify potential serial offences.

Serial offences by their nature are often very easy to identify.

Serial offenders often employ very specific, or signature traits during the commission of their offences. Serial killers often employ similar methods to select and kill their victims -- strangulation, stabbing, blunt force. The victim pool alone is an identifiable trait and tells us something about the killer. Serial killers often dispose of their victims in a similar fashion or location.

Crime analysis is essential to determine any commonality or repetitive traits.

Investigators are not blind to these traits and enthusiastically pursue any case in which linkage is determined or suspected.

After all, these are the kind of cases homicide investigators relish.

(Systemic issues can contribute to investigative shortfalls, such as poor or ineffective interagency communication. It would appear the joint WPS-RCMP task force mitigates this issue.)

Serial killers who do not employ common or repetitive traits are extraordinarily difficult to identify.

ADDICTION: The real issue!

If we acknowledge the roots of causation we are left with several contributing issues such as unemployment, poverty, social disadvantage, lack of education and addiction. These are all societal ills that need to be globally addressed to deal with the issue.

I will focus on the primary cause, addiction.

If these young women were not addicted to drugs they would not be on the streets exposing themselves to the strangers who will ultimately victimize them.

So where does that leave us? What can we do to address the issue? Where do we go from here?

The answer is not simple.

If we are motivated to do something we must accept the challenge to do everything in our power to stop these killings. Like any complex problem, a multifaceted approach must be considered. This approach must consist of the following elements:

Get them off the streets, eliminating the exposure to the risk; treat their addiction; then educate, rehabilitate and reintegrate.

First, let's look at intervention. These victims are drug-addicted individuals who are a danger to themselves. They must be taken off the streets to eliminate their exposure to the danger. Their addiction and dangerous behaviour underlines the fact they have significant mental-health issues and they meet the definition of "persons in need of protection."

These victims should not have the "right" to continue this dangerous behaviour as it puts them into a high-risk category to become a victim of homicide.

As such, laws should be enhanced (Mental Health Act) or created to facilitate the removal of these victims from the streets and force them into mandatory secure addiction-treatment facilities. Families should not be helpless when they know their drug-addicted mother, daughter or sister is out on the street working in the sex trade. They should be able to take action and initiate some type of emergency service. These options should exist as the first step in the process.

Second, let's look at addiction.

The Addictions Foundation of Manitoba is the leading entity in Manitoba when it comes to waging war on addiction. AFM is an underfunded, understaffed entity that desperately needs to be expanded to address the needs of our community.

I don't have to cite a study to tell you upwards of 90 per cent of crime committed in Winnipeg is driven by people with drug- or alcohol-addiction issues.

It's time for action.

Police and government officials need to acknowledge the need and take the appropriate action.

The money required for a public hearing or inquiry would be much better allocated to AFM for program expansion.

Third, what action is needed?

These potential victims must be removed from the dangers of the streets and have their addiction treated. This is, however, only the beginning.

They need to be educated, rehabilitated and reintegrated into our society. There has to be a community-based approach that addresses all of these essential elements.

The police service simply cannot be all things to all people and can only have a limited role in this fight. The government has to take the responsibility to lead the fight against this significant social problem.

In conclusion, the time for finger pointing, blame and debate is over. The time for action is now.

It's time to form an action committee with motivated people from the community to fight for and effect positive change regarding this issue. This committee should include representation from all stakeholders such as, but not limited to: aboriginal leaders, police, Manitoba Justice, Manitoba government and the AFM.

I am personally disturbed by the number of murdered and missing aboriginal women in this province. It is a problem that should concern everyone in our community regardless of race, creed or religion.

Solutions are possible if motivation exists.

Nothing ever changes if nothing ever changes.


James G. Jewell is a retired Winnipeg police homicide investigator.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition June 27, 2012 A11

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