After Pickton trial, focus shifts to Vancouver police

The office of the police complaint commissioner is considering finally ordering an investigation into the Vancouver police department's handling of the cases of the missing women from the Downtown Eastside.

According to deputy commissioner Bruce Brown, there are at least two long-standing complaints before the OPCC, but action on them had been suspended pending the outcome of the trial of Robert William Pickton.

"We are revisiting them," Brown told the Georgia Straight. "We are certainly alive to the fact that we have these files. They're still open."

On December 9, a jury found Pickton guilty of six counts of second-degree murder; he was sentenced on December 11 to life in prison with no chance of parole for 25 years. Pickton remains accused in the murder of 20 other women. His defence team can file an appeal on the first verdict, a move that could delay a second trial for years.

Police complaint commissioner Dirk Ryneveld discussed the complaints against the VPD with Crown counsel several months ago, according to Brown. "It's something that we would have to consider, whether or not that's something that should be looked into now as opposed to after the end of the second trial," Brown said.

One of those complaints was filed in 2002 by Tony Bhullar, then Liberal MLA for Surrey-Newton.

"It makes no sense whatsoever, such as the Air India investigation, to conduct it 20 years later," Bhullar told the Straight. "As a lawyer, I can tell you that evidence is lost over time. People's memories fade, and then there is disinterest."

A former lawyer with the RCMP, Bhullar said there needs to be accountability as to why reports about women going missing from the poverty ­-stricken Downtown Eastside were not taken seriously by the police.

"I think if a number of women went missing in a more affluent area, like in Shaughnessy, you would have police officers brought in," he said. "I think you would have the premier speaking. I think you would have the attorney general involved."

The former MLA noted that the Supreme Court of Canada's decision on October 4, 2007, involving a wrongly convicted Ontario man laid down the legal principle that police can be held liable for negligent investigation. In the case Hill v. Hamilton-Wentworth Regional Police Services Board, the high court's majority ruling stated: "The police are not immune from liability under the law of negligence and the tort of negligent investigation exists in Canada."

Whether or not this ruling is relevant to the families of the missing women is a matter that remains to be tested, according to Vancouver lawyer David Butcher, who has represented police officers in the past.

"What the Supreme Court of Canada has said is that a person who's wrongfully accused or convicted of a crime may sue the police if the investigation is conducted negligently," Butcher told the Straight. "It may well be that the court would extend the principle, but it would require that–an extension of the principle rather than an application of it."

However, Butcher also explained that, historically, people who were wrongly convicted could claim damages for malicious prosecution, which he said is very hard to prove in court. "From that perspective, the potential claims of family members [of the missing women] may be simpler today because of the Hill decision," he said. "Theoretically, it's available but may well be difficult to prove. In any negligence claim, you have to prove that the negligence of a person caused the loss."

Vancouver East NDP MP Libby Davies, the First Nations Leadership Council, and some victims' families are calling for a public inquiry into why the system failed to stop the slaughter of the women from the Downtown Eastside.

However, B.C. Attorney General Wally Oppal told CBC News on December 9 that if there is a public inquiry, it could still be years away because such a proceeding is not possible while trials and appeals are under way.

Meanwhile, reforms to the country's prostitution laws are also beyond the immediate horizon. In August this year, Pivot Legal Society lawyer Katrina Pacey and Vancouver lawyer Joseph Arvay filed a charter challenge with the B.C. Supreme Court against these laws, which they argued put sex workers at risk. In a phone interview with the Straight, Pacey said a hearing is not expected early in the next year. The case could eventually reach the Supreme Court of Canada, taking several years more before a ruling is finally reached.

Related link:
How should we deal with missing women after Pickton?