Regional police would have caught Pickton faster: Oppal

Missing-women inquiry commissioner Wally Oppal has called for B.C. to set up regional police departments in Greater Vancouver and the capital region after finding that a unified force on the Lower Mainland likely would have caught serial killer Robert Pickton much earlier.

Oppal, a former B.C. attorney general, concluded that Pickton slipped through cracks in the Lower Mainland’s fragmented policing system of more than 15 municipal and RCMP detachments.

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Pickton was first identified as a suspect in 1998, but he went on killing women for nearly four more years. He eventually was convicted of killing six women, but claimed to have murdered dozens more.

“It is clear from the evidence that a regional police force stood a good chance of apprehending Robert Pickton much earlier,” Oppal said.

Noting that regional policing has been debated for years, he urged government to take decisive action to end the political impasse.

“In light of the clear findings of this inquiry, this situation of a stalemate cannot be allowed to prevail,” Oppal said. “It is time for the province of British Columbia to commit to the creation of a unified police force.”

Oppal did not recommend a particular model, but urged government to create an independent expert committee to come up with a proposal and action plan.

Later, he told reporters that the recommendations could also apply to the capital region, where four municipal departments and three RCMP detachments serve about 350,000 people.

“It really makes no sense to have that many police departments,” he said. “While they haven’t had the same crises — the tragedies that we’ve had here [on the Lower Mainland] — in principle, there’s no reason why there ought not to be some kind of regionalization so as to avoid what I call the patchwork in policing.”

Justice Minister Shirley Bond called Oppal’s recommendation “timely,” but stopped short of committing to a regional-policing model.

“We’re in the process of discussing a 10-year policing plan for British Columbia, and I think the concept of what that model might look like deserves further discussion,” she said.

Bond noted that the current RCMP contract has an “opt-out” clause should there be a decision to move to a regional police force. But she said there has been no consensus among municipal politicians.

In recent years, the province has been stressing integration, whereby departments contribute officers to stand-alone regional units that deal with homicides or domestic violence. Oppal said that response is “insufficient.”

“The provincial government, in fairness, is in a difficult position because for them to impose a regime of policing that the mayors don’t want makes it difficult,” he said. “I would urge the mayors to get proactive in this.”

Saanich Mayor Frank Leonard called the regional police force recommendation “predictable.” He said Oppal first recommended such a move 20 years ago but was unable to gather support for the idea later in his career as a Liberal cabinet minister.

Leonard, who has been mayor for 16 years, said he has repeatedly campaigned on retaining a strong community police department that participates in integrated regional units, and won’t deviate from that campaign promise.

“The provincial policy is that we’ve got to work together and integrated with support and specialized services, and that’s been my tactic,” he said.

Victoria police deputy chief John Ducker said in a statement that his department has long supported regional policing in the Capital Regional District. “We welcome any progress toward that model,” he said.

The Opposition NDP appeared lukewarm to the idea, saying there’s not enough research to show whether regional police departments would address Oppal’s concerns.

“The reasons, amongst many others, that these women are dead, that their families mourn them today, is because of systemic racism [and] sexism that has existed in our society for a long time,” said attorney general critic Leonard Krog. “Those issues will not be addressed by regional policing.”

lkines@timescolonist.com

rshaw@timescolonist.com

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