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B.C. slow to adopt lessons of Bernardo

Police face obstacles tracking down serial predators

The Vancouver Sun

Wednesday, September  26, 2001

Lindsay Kines, Lori Culbert and Kim Bolan Special Report: Missing Women: Part Five

Two decades after Clifford Olson began abducting and murdering children on the Lower Mainland, B.C. police agencies still face major roadblocks when trying to catch organized, mobile serial predators, a Vancouver Sun investigation has found.

The patchwork quilt of municipal police forces and RCMP detachments across the province often manage their cases differently, lack the specialized training being provided officers elsewhere, and use a wide array of computer systems that are often incompatible with one another.

There are no clear provincial policies to make sure information on major crimes is shared, and no guidelines governing how and when agencies come together to form joint task forces when a predator begins crossing jurisdictions.

A number of police forces also lack the resources to do day-to-day work, let alone commit officers to work on multi-agency teams.

"My own experience working in the policing systems of British Columbia leads me to believe that we are not properly prepared to achieve the effective collaborative results that the justice system and the public expect," Abbotsford police Inspector Rod Gehl wrote in a masters thesis on multi-agency investigations completed in April for Royal Roads University in Victoria.

These obstacles could hamper major, multi-jurisdictional investigations like the case of dozens of women missing from Vancouver's Downtown Eastside, more than a dozen senior investigators from across the Lower Mainland told The Sun.

The missing women investigation started in 1998 as a Vancouver police department case, even though some of the women had ties to other cities, but frequented Vancouver where they were involved in drugs and the sex trade. In some cases, their disappearances were reported to police forces in other communities where family members reside.

Last spring, responsibility for the case was transferred to a joint team of RCMP and Vancouver police investigators, which is now being expanded to 16 members.

Gehl said B.C. police agencies work well together when they have to, as shown by the success of the provincial unsolved homicide unit and the task force he led that solved the Abbotsford Killer case.

But the systems used to set up teams remain unstructured and informal, and Gehl found "there is a significant need to move forward" in B.C.

A judicial inquiry into the Paul Bernardo serial murder case uncovered similar problems in Ontario and called for sweeping changes to the way that province conducts serial murder investigations.

Bernardo raped or sexually assaulted at least 18 women in Scarborough, Peel Region and St. Catharines, and killed three women in St. Catharines and Burlington before police finally captured him.

Justice Archie Campbell, who headed the Bernardo inquiry, wrote in his report that there were times during the investigation when the various police forces involved "might as well have been operating in different countries."

"Because of the systemic weaknesses and the inability of the different law enforcement agencies to poll their information and cooperate effectively, Bernardo fell through the cracks."

Campbell called for Ontario to adopt a major case management system with specialized training for officers, a common computer system, minimum standards for investigation, early recognition of linked crimes, and provincial oversight to ensure investigations are pursued vigorously.

"There must be a public recognition that these problems are not just problems for the police and law enforcement communities," Campbell wrote. "They are problems for the community as a whole."

But while Ontario has responded by spending more than $55 million to fill cracks in the system, B.C. appears to have ignored many of the lessons of the Bernardo case.

And with up to 45 women missing from the Downtown Eastside, and police acknowledging a serial killer may be responsible, the case could potentially be the largest serial murder investigation in B.C.'s history.

In some ways, B.C. is in even worse shape than Ontario before Bernardo, because there are no regional police forces on the Lower Mainland or Vancouver Island.

Instead, there is a hodgepodge of municipal police forces and RCMP detachments, each with their own chief or commanding officer, and often with their way of doing things.

On the Lower Mainland alone, there are six municipal forces -- Vancouver, New Westminster, West Vancouver, Delta, Port Moody and Abbotsford -- and a slew of RCMP detachments.

In the Victoria area, there are about five municipal police departments and five RCMP detachments serving a population of just 350,000.

Victoria police Sergeant Don Bland, the lead investigator on the disappearance of Michael Dunahee, said officers in municipal departments and RCMP detachments across the province generally work well together in joint investigations, sharing information on the phone and in meetings.

But he said the only way to improve communication and centralize investigation methods is for the Victoria area and the Lower Mainland to form regional police units -- such as homicide, sexual assault and fraud squads.

Bland, who sits on a police working group looking into the idea, says officials have been talking about the concept since he became a cop 27 years ago. But he doesn't believe the political will for such a move is there because politicians and senior police officers appear hesitant to tell a community they are amalgamating a local department into a region-wide conglomerate.

"What we really need is some movement by the provincial government to legislate, to make [police boards, municipal councils and senior officers] do it.

"Unless they are told to do it they are not going to move ahead at any kind of pace," he said.

"It would be leagues better if we were all together."

Bland said that without regionalization, it will be harder to solve a case like Bernardo if a suspect commits sexual assaults in different jurisdictions and then steps up his violence to murder in another city.

"If a guy like Bernardo starts out doing sexual assaults, and then escalates to grabs-and-lets-them-go, and then escalates to murder, I would say that it's quite possible here, that until he gets to the point where he is a major target -- like a major investigation -- he could quite easily do those multi-jurisdictional things and we wouldn't know about it," Bland said.

Staff Sergeant Doug Bruce, head of the West Vancouver Police major crimes unit, went one step further: calling for one regional police department across Greater Vancouver.

"Until the provincial government gets it together and regionalizes the Lower Mainland, in my opinion, the communication will not be there," said Bruce, a 27-year veteran.

"They've been talking about it for 30 years and it's never come any closer. ... It's going to take a big initiative on behalf of the provincial government to do that."

Burnaby RCMP Sergeant Frank Mogridge said there is no good reason to have a dozen small police agencies scattered across the Lower Mainland, and fears it may take public outrage over a case to bring about any change.

"It almost needs that political will behind it, so if it had that Paul Bernardo case behind it, you don't think that they wouldn't do it? I think they would. There would be public outrage over what's happened and how disgusting it's been and maybe the police could have been more efficient in their business had they done it differently," he said.

Already families of the missing women and advocates for sex trade workers have criticized Vancouver police and the RCMP for not doing enough over the last three years.

As it stands now, there are significant problems sharing information, particularly on major cases such as homicides and sexual assaults, where detectives have to be particularly protective of information known only to them and the suspect.

"For the most part, homicide cases in most jurisdictions are kept still on index cards and hard copy," Gehl said in an interview. "They're not even on computer systems.

"That creates a real lack of information availability for sharing. An existing homicide file might never make it into a database where it can be shared."

And even if it does make it to a database, there's no guarantee it would be easily available to other departments.

Gehl notes that as technology developed, police departments often purchased their own, stand-alone computer systems for managing information. "Most of the systems don't link together," he said.

Corporal Pete Cross, a senior investigator in the Surrey RCMP homicide unit, recently shared a file with a smaller municipal police department and had to spend two days printing information from the other agency's computer because the electronic systems weren't compatible.

"We don't have consistent uniformity across the board for any kind of computerized management system, which is what we need," he said of police agencies across B.C.

When four-year-old Michael Dunahee went missing in 1991, Victoria police bought a stand-alone computer so they could keep track of the thousands of tips on the notorious file.

Years later, the department adopted a major case management system, but it was not compatible with the old computer so all the Dunahee data had to be painstakingly re-entered into the new terminal. That allowed investigators to cross-reference whether a blue car stopped in connection with a recent case had also been queried on the Dunahee file.

But the new system still isn't perfect, because Victoria's computer can't communicate with technology in other departments in the Capital Region. However, Bland believes improvements to the system are "imminent."

The mishmash of computers in police agencies across B.C. means that detectives investigating a homicide in Burnaby, for example, often have no way of knowing that a licence plate number or suspect name in their case has also popped up in a sexual assault file just a few miles away in New Westminster.

"It can create a problem where . . . a common perpetrator can exist in a number of files and never come to a situation where he would be cross referenced," said Gehl.

"Say you had an unsolved homicide where John Smith was the pizza delivery boy that delivers pizza to the house. And in another homicide file two years later that same John Smith is a taxi cab driver that drops somebody off at that house that night."

If the investigators knew that John Smith had popped up in two separate cases, his name would obviously be moved up on the list of potential suspects, Gehl said. But under the current system in B.C., those connections might never be made in a situation "where the computer databases don't ever become cross-referenced."

The RCMP's Violent Crime Linkage Analysis System computer does alert police if it determines that the manner in which a rape was committed in Delta appears to be similar to one in Vancouver, for example.

ViCLAS is one of the few bright spots in B.C., since the province's police chiefs have worked hard to ensure that investigators report all their cases to the system -- something that wasn't happening in Ontario at the time of Bernardo's rampage. In his report, Campbell noted that if ViCLAS had been used properly in the province at the time, Bernardo would have been caught much sooner.

Even so, ViCLAS only looks for links between crimes by comparing their behavioral characteristics. The computer does not have the capability to cross-reference all the tips, licence plate numbers, persons of interest and other details gathered on individual cases.

"You need a master type of computer cross-referencing system to do that," Gehl said.

Ontario is rolling out just a system over the next few years in the wake of the Campbell report. "And they're on their way to doing it in Alberta," Gehl said.

Delta Staff Sergeant John Robin believes ViCLAS is a useful tool, and said police management courses mean many agencies often use similar techniques to investigate files. But he said there would be a vast improvement if B.C. could also adopt a centralized computer system.

"They spent a lot of time looking for the ultimate system in Ontario, and we need to do the same thing in B.C.," said Robin, a police officer for 17 years who heads the serious crime section.

"It would be nice if we did all have the standardized system, but there is no concerted effort that I'm aware of to work toward one universal case management system in B.C."

Bruce agreed. "There doesn't seem to be a will here for spending that kind of money... [but] I'd jump for joy to see that," he said.

"I would hope [B.C.] would put something like that in place before we run into a situation like Bernardo. We had Clifford Olson, which was just as horrific, if not more so, and I think that investigation could have been -- and this is just a personal opinion -- speeded up if there was something like that available."

But, right now, B.C. agencies rely on ViCLAS, personal communication, and even, on occasion, media reports to spot links in cases.

Once ViCLAS notifies a police force that one of its files is strikingly similar to a case with another department, however, there are no guidelines to ensure that agencies follow-up on that information or join forces to work on them without delay.

Vancouver police Chief Constable Terry Blythe said the provincial government needs to follow Ontario's lead and provide some guidance on the issue.

"I would like to see them play a more significant role in bringing police organizations together," Blythe said.

"I think there's an opportunity there, because then you start looking at better resources for funding, equipment and personnel and all of those things. So I think it could be advantageous to everybody.

"Certainly, when it's multi-jurisdictional like that, it is everybody's responsibility," said Blythe, who has admitted he is frustrated his department has taken the brunt of criticism for the missing women case.

Gehl wants to see a provincial working group research and recommend a common database, as well as protocols to "ensure the timely and seamless" creation of multi-agency teams.

He also calls for policies on sharing information to "ensure that common crime threats that cross jurisdictional boundaries are recognized and acted upon at the earliest opportunity."

Many crimes today reach across municipal boundaries, and Robin said Delta generally has had good cooperation from other departments in those cases. But problems can arise when communication breaks down among agencies trying to work together.

"It's a problem. I'm not going to tell you that it's totally 100 per cent, because it's not," he said. "It's not through a lack of trying, it's just the fact that everyone is doing their own investigations and sometimes you tend to get tunnel vision."

Finally, Gehl called for police and the Justice Institute of B.C. to set up a major case management course modeled after the one taught at the Canadian Police College, which was hailed by the Bernardo Inquiry as the standard for running major cases.

Ontario responded by introducing a similar course province-wide and training more than 2,300 officers.

By comparison, a document obtained by The Sun under Canada's Access to Information Act shows that only 185 B.C. officers have been trained in major case management since the course was introduced in 1994 -- 59 municipal; 126 RCMP.

Given the difficulties faced by police, Robin hesitates when asked if B.C. is prepared to handle a major case today, such as another Bernardo or Terry Driver, the Abbotsford Killer.

"I'd like to think we are," he said. "But, for example, there's a number of things we have to get in place, like an electronic major case management system.

"I'd like to see more universality in the way we're cooperating with each other. And I'd like to see some more regionalization," Robin said. "We'd probably be more successful in our investigations if we moved to that kind of model."

Cross, of Surrey RCMP, said homicide units across the Lower Mainland are good at sharing notes on files, but he argued that solving a major file often comes down to resources.

Last year, the Surrey detachment spent about $1 million searching for 10-year-old Heather Thomas, and then arresting a suspect in her murder.

Cross said public interest and political will provided him with unlimited resources for a case that touched B.C. residents. But he is now working on a prostitution-related file, and has to account much more closely for the money he is spending. While he sympathizes with his bosses who must be budget-conscious, he also argues that there should be enough money in the system to treat each murder equally -- regardless of the victim's background.

"I would hate to think we've reached a stage in society where the first question is: 'How much is it going to cost?' And believe me, we are at the stage now: 'You want to investigate this? What's it going to cost?"

But while Cross, who has 24 years experience, laments the lack of resources for policing and a paper tip filing system in Surrey that is "still in the dark ages," he believes policing in B.C. has improved since the days of Olson.

"I think we're much more in tune with other jurisdictions than we were 20 years ago, 30 years ago," he said. "I think we're a little more sophisticated than that."

Investigation turns up more missing women-Sept 21, 2001
How the investigation was flawed-Sept 22, 2001
DNA Samples not used-Sept 24, 2001
Police didn't pick up suspect who later murdered-Sept 25, 2001
A killer's slip-up gave police a break-Sept 28, 2001
Sexual predator case prompts review-Sept 28
The lesson is: every human life matters-Sept 27, 2001
Police build a bridge to families-Oct 4, 2001
600 Suspects in missing women case-Oct 15, 2001

Vanished without a trace-July 29, 2001

 

Email: wleng#missingpeople.net 

Missing Women Tip Line: 1-877-687-3377

Updated: August 21, 2016