VANCOUVER EASTSIDE MISSING WOMEN
Missing women just "hookers" referred to as scum of the Earth by biased VPD, inquiry told
BY SUZANNE FOURNIER, THE PROVINCE APRIL 23, 2012
Files on missing people floated in a “never-never land” with no active investigator assigned to them, Sandy Cameron — the controversial Vancouver police clerk — told the Missing Women Commission of Inquiry Monday.
Cameron, who is the person many families of missing and murdered women view as the reason their loved ones’ death wasn’t taken seriously or investigated, tried to explain on the stand that “systemic” problems within the VPD were to blame.
Cameron’s testimony at the inquiry today has been long-awaited but the most dramatic evidence Monday morning came from another witness, also a former civilian clerk with the VPD.
Former 911 operator Rae-Lynn Dicks testified on the stand that the VPD was biased against sex workers and wouldn’t even take a Missing Persons report about a homeless person or anyone who had “no fixed address.”
Dicks said a sergeant “got mad” at her for taking a report about any person who was homeless.
Then she emotionally expanded on that, saying: “Absolutely, it was said many, many times by more than one sergeant. If they don’t live here, they’re just hookers, for all we know they’re in Toronto now. They didn’t care. They were marginalized. Most were aboriginal.”
Dicks, who is now working on a criminology degree, says she was “told not to be a bleeding heart.” Dick said the attitude of most of her police-officer supervisors was that “these people are the scum of the Earth. We’re not going to spend valuable time and money trying to find them.”
Cameron, now retired after working as a civilian clerk in the VPD Missing Persons Unit from 1979 to 2001, said she had never heard that reports could not be taken about homeless people.
“The first time I heard that, in your office last week, my jaw almost hit the table,” Cameron told Commission counsel Karey Brookes.
Cameron said she had no training for the job, aside from one course on communication skills, but often worked on her own if the detective usually assigned to the Missing Persons unit was out in the field.
Cameron said she wasn’t even supposed to take Missing Persons reports, but did look after mail and reports that came into the main desk of the VPD station at 312 Main Street, and took phone calls put through to the unit. Files on missing persons tended to float around in “never-never land,” Cameron testified.
However, she admitted she was hampered by rules, “because the unwritten policy of the VPD is no body, no homicide.” Cameron said that was why missing persons cases seldom got bumped up to the homicide squad of the VPD, even though her supervisor was supposed to be the sergeant of the homicide squad.
Dicks said she was deeply offended by the remarks made by some, although not all, VPD officers on the job about sex workers, aboriginal people or anyone homeless who was reported missing.
“Aboriginal people were depicted as being always drunk,” said Dicks, her voice shaking. “They were mimicked. A sergeant would pretend to be a drunk aboriginal woman and make jokes about how they talked, or spoke.”
Dicks said she has gone on to get professional training in criminology, and the remarks she heard mostly in the late 1990s were “offensive to my training and to my personal sensibilities. It was wrong, it was systemic, and it happened all the time.”
Dicks said she would try to report a missing sex worker to a sworn officer but invariably got the reaction: “They’re just hookers -- when scum of the Earth goes missing we’re not going to spend valuable time and money looking for them.”
Dicks was told to “follow policy” and not report missing sex workers. Her supervising officer invariably responded: “‘Yeah, they went out on a date and for all you know they’re still out on the date, or the pimp took them and they’re still in Toronto.’ I was told I was a bleeding heart and to grow up and follow policy.”
Detectives on the sexual-offence squad did not take that view, said Dicks. “They took those cases seriously, but other officers would say, ‘they’re a waste of space. A hooker can’t get raped. They’re only reporting it because they didn’t get paid.’”
Dicks then related one of the most traumatic events of her time as a front-line phone operator.
She said a young woman phoned from a pay phone, crying and sounding “weaker and weaker by the moment.” The caller was able to give Dicks a partial licence-plate number before she fell to the ground and a gas station clerk took the phone and started yelling about “the hooker bleeding all over the place.”
Dicks says paramedics were called and determined the young woman “had been ripped between her anus and her vagina with a tennis racket.” Then a constable got on the messaging system and told Dicks, “it’s just a hooker. Hookers don’t get raped.”
Dicks said that she eventually testified in the trial of the man who had assaulted the young woman. “She was 14 years old when that happened to her. At that point in time she already had a child living in foster care. The child was from a john and had been taken away from her because of her heroin addiction.”
However, Dicks said by the time the attacker came to trial, the woman had left the Downtown Eastside, was back in school, intending to go to university and her child had been returned to her. “It gave me a little bit of closure, which we rarely get,” said Dicks.
“I don’t care whether a person is male, female, green or purple,” said an emotional Dicks, “rape is rape, it’s a violation of your personal body space by another human being.”
At one point, VPD lawyer Sean Hern objected to the women’s evidence when a specific officer’s name was mentioned. Hern said that after 15 years, vague testimony about a particular officer should not be allowed. He pointed out to Commissioner Wally Oppal that the inquiry has its own problems with allegations of sexual harassment of its own staff, which are being investigated by lawyer Delayne Sartison.
Oppal said the evidence naming a particular officer, and alleged attitudes by other VPD named or unnamed officers, is “relevant” and he would continue to allow it.
Cameron had one moment where she seemed emotional, when she followed up on a chart and discovered dental records hadn’t been forwarded and nothing had been done.
“I looked in the binder and the dental charts were there, so I asked the detective assigned to the project if the dental charts been sent to David Sweet at UBC, and he said ‘No.’”
Commission counsel Brooks asked Cameron why she seemd to be “upset.”
“Because they should have known what to do with them,” said Cameron. “It would have been important to get that information on the computer.”
Cameron denied virtually all reports by family members that she was “rude, sarcastic” or in any way uncaring toward families of women who went missing from the Downtown Eastside.
However, as time went on, and police started to hold meetings for the families of the missing women, Cameron said she was warned by a friend: “I should watch my back. Shit rolls downhill. A civilian would be the easiest person to blame.”
Cameron said the blame is properly assigned to VPD officers, who refused to take responsibility for failing to properly investigate missing women. “They blew Missing Persons off,” said Cameron.
Eventually, Robert Pickton was discovered to have been luring women from the Downtown Eastside, using drugs and alcohol, to his Port Coquitlam farm, where they were brutally murdered. Pickton confessed to killing 49 women, although he was convicted of killing six women and linked to the deaths of 33 women whose DNA was found on his farm.
The Commission has announced it will hold public policy forums from May 1 to May 10, but Oppal must hand in his final report by the end of June.
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Updated: August 21, 2016