VANCOUVER EASTSIDE MISSING WOMEN
Former beat cop answered 750 calls a month in Downtown Eastside, inquiry hears
BY SUZANNE FOURNIER, THE PROVINCE MARCH 5, 2012
For the first time, Vancouver police officers responsible for the Downtown Eastside are speaking out at a “collaborative” panel discussion at the Missing Women Commission of Inquiry on how the murder of 49 women could have been prevented.
At an inquiry dominated at times by “lawyered-up” VPD and RCMP police officers, largely concerned with defending their reputations, these four now-retired VPD officers spoke frankly Monday morning about the difficulties of policing a zone dominated by addiction, poverty and crime of all kinds.
Former VPD Const. Dave Dickson, a beat cop who worked with marginalized eastside residents for his entire 28-year career, starting in 1980, began by objecting hotly to remarks by lawyer Cameron Ward that a panel of police would not help find out who is responsible for so many women being harmed for decades.
Ward, who represents the families of 25 murdered women, said four police officers can’t be properly cross-examined on a panel. Ward also objected that he only found out this morning that the panel would include a fourth officer, former VPD Insp. Chris Beach. He told Commissioner Wally Oppal that this kind of police panel “will not help you get at the truth.”
Dickson took offence at that. “To say I’m not going to tell the truth because I’m sitting between two police officers, I find that extremely offensive. I waited for years to come here, to this inquiry.”
Also on the panel are former Staff Sgt. Doug MacKay-Dunn and former Deputy Chief Gary Greer, both of whom did stints in the Downtown Eastside on patrol, in the jail and as managers.
Dickson, who worked on patrol, as a community liaison officer in contact with street-level sex trade workers, said he “became an advocate”for the troubled and addicted women. Dickson also worked as a civilian “sex-trade liaison officer” for the VPD and when that came to an end, in the summer of 2008, he got a job within three days with the Lookout Society, “doing the same thing I’ve done for years.”
As soon as he started walking the beat back in 1980, Dickson said he realized the police system “didn’t work very good for a large proportion of the people down there. I’d arrest the same person three times in one week.” Dickson switched to his own form of “community policing,” one that would take police managers several years to adopt.
Oppal noted that “virtually every police force in Canada now says it is involved in true community-based policing.”
Dickson said he started visiting DTES schools and daycares, including the one at the Aboriginal Friendship Centre on East Hastings. Some kids were thrilled by the uniform, said Dickson.
Others were terrified. He cited “one little First Nations girl, about four or five,” who pushed herself on her back across the floor away from him. Dickson learned her mother was an addict and her father a South American drug-dealer. “Police were coming in all the time arresting the mum and beating the father up,” said Dickson, who cajoled the girl to rejoin the group.
Commission Counsel Karey Brooks noted that many witnesses at the 55 days of hearings so far, from both community and police, have spoken highly of Dickson. He called that “flattering,” but said that “it was really as simple as treating everybody with the same respect as anybody else.”
Dickson became a street-level advocate for the community, responding to up to 750 pages a month. He went to all the community meetings he could, ranging from the Franciscan Sisters of Atonement to the Downtown Eastside Residents’ Association (DERA)and the Salvation Army to agencies helping sex-trade workers, such as the WISH women’s drop-in and PACE (Prostitution Alternatives Counselling and Education). When Inspector Gary Greer stepped into District 2, primarily the DTES in 1999, said Dickson, “he gave me carte blanche to do my work and told me to pick your own days off.”
The panel agreed that having a frontline community cop is “expensive,” as much as $100,000 a year, because as Beach emphasized, the officer has to be freed up from responding to police calls “in order to be available for 750 pages a month.”
Greer noted that the modern approach to policing is that “the police are the public and the public are the police,” saying that police should ideally be seen as “the people who are paid to prevent crime and maintain the peace.”
Despite all the lofty talk about policing goals and ideals, the panel has yet to address how dozens of women could go missing from the Downtown Eastside starting in the 1980s, during the exact period that many of these four officers were on the job.
Convicted serial killer Robert Pickton was found guilty of killing six women, lured with drugs and alcohol from the Downtown Eastside, primarily from the blocks surrounding the VPD station, to Pickton’s Port Coquitlam pig farm.
Pickton confessed in jail to killing 49 women but an extensive forensic search of his farm found the remains and DNA of 33 of those women.
The killing spree of Canada’s worst serial killer is believed to have started in 1991. Pickton stepped up his pace to a murder almost every six weeks throughout 2001, which is when a joint VPD-RCMP police force was tasked with finding out why so many women were missing.
Accurate information about who Pickton was and evidence of murder, including the bloody women’s clothing and other trophies scattered about his pig farmm was provided to both the VPD and RCMP as early as 1998. An eyewitness who would eventually become crucial to convicting Pickton was identified in 1999.
The inquiry, which will wrap up formal and panel hearings by the end of April, is tasked with finding out why police didn’t stop Pickton from 1997, when he almost killed a Vancouver sex-trade worker on his farm, until Feb. 5, 2002, when his farm was searched on an unrelated firearms matter and evidence swiftly found of the missing women.
Charges against Pickton, related to “Victim 1997” who was herself a highly credible witness at Pickton’s preliminary hearing, were stayed in 1998 by the Crown.
The inquiry must also detemine why that case, called a “slam-dunk” conviction that would have prevented Pickton from killing at least another 18 women, did not proceed to trial.
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Updated: August 21, 2016