Wally Oppal’s report on the Missing Women’s Inquiry holds lessons, but few surprises. After the trial of Robert Pickton, years of news coverage and two years of inquiry, most of the mistakes are well-known.
Pickton could have been caught but wasn’t, because police didn’t communicate, didn’t put a priority on the case and were sometimes incompetent. Pickton claimed to have killed 49 women, and many of them could have been saved.
Of the lessons, two stand out: the need to change the attitudes of police and others to marginalized women, and the need for a unified police system that can follow criminals wherever they go.
As others have pointed out, Oppal misses the mark in saying all of us bear responsibility for treating these woman as disposable. There were many — families, community groups, reporters, members of the public — who saw that women were disappearing and asked police for help in finding them.
The police said the women had probably just gone away for a while and they would be back. Prostitutes and drug addicts often move around without explanation, they said in response to the families and others who raised questions.
They disregarded the insights of the families, who knew the women not as anonymous sex workers, but as real human beings with individual characters. And disappearing without explanation was not part of those characters.
For years, police refused to admit what everyone else suspected — that a serial killer might be at work.
Half the job of fixing those attitudes has already been done by the Pickton case. It’s hard to imagine there is a police officer in B.C. who isn’t aware of the deaths that could have been prevented if more cops had looked at the women as people who mattered and deserved compassion.
Police officers want to make a positive difference in their communities, so they will take this lesson to heart. The recent attention to the Highway of Tears cases in the Central Interior suggests that they are taking missing women more seriously.
The other chief lesson among Oppal’s 63 recommendations is the value of regional police forces. It’s a cause this newspaper has supported vigorously. Oppal even used the term “patchwork” policing, the title of a series of Times Colonist stories in 2010.
Reading about the chain of miscommunication, missed opportunities and bureaucratic battling that went on between Vancouver police and the RCMP is infuriating and heartbreaking. Oppal says it is time to stop decades of waffling and studying; it’s time to act.
Unlike the first lesson, however, this one is not being taken to heart. At least not by politicians. Although Oppal said both Greater Vancouver and Greater Victoria need unified forces to catch criminals who ignore boundaries, the response from politicians is unchanged.
Victoria and Vancouver are in favour of unification, while the mayors of suburbs like Saanich and Surrey remain firmly opposed. Justice Minister Shirley Bond says it’s timely and deserves study. The NDP says if it becomes the government in May, the issue will be studied. In other words, nothing will be done.
It is remarkable that only in B.C. are provincial politicians so buffaloed by their municipal counterparts that they refuse to create regional police forces in major centres, even in the face of the human destruction wrought by Pickton, Clifford Olson and Peter Lee. Those who see the need for regional policing must continue to push for it because the politicians will only act under heavy pressure.
These and Oppal’s other recommendations demand our attention if we hope to prevent similar crimes. All of us, whether we are police officers, government officials or ordinary citizens, must look with compassion at the faces of those missing and murdered women and resolve that they are deserving of the same respect and justice that the rest of us expect.
© Copyright 2013