British Columbia had a history of women going missing, some turning up dead, long before police finally nabbed Robert Willy Pickton in 2002 for the murder of women picked off the streets of Vancouver's Downtown Eastside. Indeed, reviews had been launched of many who had gone missing, back to 1985. And in the late 1990s, Vancouver police officers were ringing alarm bells about the rising number of women going missing and the mounting suspicion a serial killer was at work.
But none of that made a difference in the face of a prevailing belief that those reported missing, women of similar profile -- welfare reliance, drug abuse, sex trade work and frequently aboriginal -- were likely just runaways, transients or evading police.
Commissioner Wally Oppal, in his report of the inquiry into women who went missing from the East Side between 1997 and 2002, said that was the core problem. In fact, the women weren't transients. They were residents and valued members of the impoverished neighbourhood where they eked out their lives.
Further, they were vulnerable and at high risk. That should have caused police to investigate more seriously. Instead, among the 3,000 missing persons reports made to Vancouver police annually, these cases had to jump a further hurdle -- were they really missing? -- before they were taken seriously.
There existed a systemic bias, Mr. Oppal said, against sex trade workers, with police conflating their individuals identities with work they did to survive. "The pattern of predatory violence was clear and should have been met with a swift and severe response by accountable and professional institutions, but it was not."
There were officers who made convincing arguments that the missing women weren't just wandering off, but were the victims of foul play. Among them was a beat cop who well knew the East Side and wrote a memo that he knew 75 per cent of the women who went missing. But this was met with intransigence from higher-ups. Police are loath to contemplate a serial murderer is in the midst. It is not illegal for people to go missing and a "no body, no crime" operating belief infected the leadership.
Mr. Oppal underscored that police attitudes were merely a reflection of social attitudes, not a characteristic unique to police. It was not an overt, intentional bias, but a stereotype of women who worked the Eastside, and it influenced their thinking.
There were many errors made at various points, most obviously when charges of attempted murder against Pickton in 1997 were stayed because the woman he picked up was not regarded as a reliable witness. The commissioner recommended that such vulnerable witnesses receive special handling, including drug treatment, to prepare them for trial.
Mr. Oppal blamed no individual because the problem was systemic. He dismissed categorically without basis assertions that there had been a police conspiracy and coverup. No, he noted, the missing women received little attention because they were marginalized.
This conclusion is not unique to Vancouver, but is relevant across Canada -- certainly to Winnipeg -- where 5,000 persons are reported missing each year. Many of them fit the profiles of the women who disappeared in Vancouver.
Mr. Oppal wrote that attitudes must change inside police departments and throughout society. As with the beat cop who worried that foul play had taken the lives of the women he knew in Vancouver's impoverished Eastside, this will require police departments and their vulnerable communities to trust and work together.
That is important to front-line officers and investigators, but the commission's work found that greater sensitivity will be futile if police managers and executives cling to their biases and stereotypes. A system-wide change in attitudes is required.