Prime Time Crime

(Prime Time Crime exclusive Aug.  9, 2010)

A few basic truths

By Bob Cooper





Now that the final gavel has come down on Willie Pickton the armchair quarterbacks and self-proclaimed Ďexpertsí are weighing in on what went wrong and how to prevent this from ever happening again.  In most cases their expertise in law enforcement comes from watching Law and Order or CSI.  Some are calling for a public inquiry while others are saying that it would be an expensive waste of time.  I was actually surprised to read a couple of media polls where those opposed are solidly in the majority. I would have taken odds on the inverse.    

Iím going to stay out of the public inquiry debate at this stage except to say that a very comprehensive report on the entire Pickton case will be released shortly.  It was written by now VPD Deputy Chief Constable Doug Lepard.  DCC Lepard, who was a very good Detective, spent months examining every aspect of the case.  From what Iím told the report is thorough, pulls no punches (Iím hearing words like Ďscathingí in places), and will likely answer most if not all of the publicís questions.

Today I just want to deal with a couple of themes that the mainstream media keep repeating without logical examination or any attempt at balance.  Those who have covered the VPD know the answers but parrot the questions to generate controversy to boost ratings and sell advertising.  The first is ĎWhy did it take so long to catch him?í.  In most murders there is a pre-existing connection between victim and killer.  Murders are usually solved by establishing this connection or when the killer talks about it to someone who then goes to the police.  In almost all cases, serial killings are Ďstranger to strangerí crimes and the killers are loners.  Itís not the sort of thing you go to the beer parlor and brag about.  In almost every serial killer case the police set up huge inter-agency task forces and pour a ton of money & resources into the investigation.  In almost every case the killer is caught purely by accident like being stopped for having a taillight out and the cop finding a body in his trunk.  When they go back through the investigation they usually find that the killer has been interviewed by the task force at least two or three times without arousing any suspicion.

The Pickton case was also complicated by the fact that there were no crime scenes or dump sites making it very unusual and any criticisms should be viewed in that light.  The police literally had a better chance of finding a needle in a haystack.

Another is ĎWould the police response have been different if women were disappearing off the streets of Kerrisdale or Dunbar?í.  Perhaps, but there are some substantial differences.  Usually a woman with a stable lifestyle who goes missing is reported missing right away unlike the lapse of several months for most of the women in the Pickton case.  The person making the report will often have detailed information about the victimís last movements and even where she may have been going when she was last seen.  All of this gives the police a great deal more to work with than they had in the Pickton case and even then their chances of clearing the case would be remote.

A recent letter to the editor asked why the police were not watching Pickton once he appeared on their radar and thatís a fair question.  Not having been involved in the investigation I canít say that they werenít from time to time but physical surveillance involves a lot more than 2 guys in an unmarked Ford.  Without giving away trade secrets the average surveillance operation involves roughly fifteen cops for each eight hour shift with other resources being brought to bear in more difficult or complex cases.  The Graham McMynn kidnapping took up just about every surveillance resource in British Columbia and that was barely enough. 

The VPDís surveillance people are the best in the business and are routinely used to train surveillance units in other agencies, both here and internationally.  The problem is there arenít nearly enough of them owing to chronic underfunding of the Department thatís gone on for decades, a factor that any competent inquiry must address as successive mayors & councils have a lot to answer for.  Bosses who allocate those scarce resources have to prioritize by asking a couple of basic questions.  Firstly, is surveillance feasible?  Secondly, what is it going to accomplish?  In the Pickton case, the area around the farm is rural and open making surveillance very difficult.  As to what you expect surveillance to accomplish you have to ask what youíre going to do if Pickton is seen picking up a prostitute or driving up to the farm with one in his truck.  The answer is simple.  You have to intervene immediately which will expose the surveillance without gathering one bit of evidence.  Put that up against the other 20 requests for surveillance in the queue.  Active bank robbers, murder suspects (where they have a lot more evidence than they had on Pickton), and extremely dangerous sex offenders walking at large, to name just a few.  Itís rather like playing God and no boss should have to do that.

Finally, there is ĎThe cops didnít care because the women were drug addicted prostitutes and therefore disposableí.  True, cops are a jaded lot and Homicide detectives are especially so but a basic truth is that in the Homicide Squad you live and die by your clearance rate and you donít miss an opportunity to clear a case no matter who the victim is.  We used to hear the same thing from the gay community.  I was involved in both the Aaron Webster and John Mogentale investigations and we cleared them both.  In the Webster case I got a phone call from then Deputy Chief John Unger who told me that I had a blank cheque and carte blanche on any resources I needed.  He also told me if I had a problem getting anything I was to phone him personally day or night.  In the VPD, if you ever get that kind of undertaking from a Deputy Chief you tuck it away someplace safe and you donít use it frivolously.  I never had to make that call because I had support at every step in the Chain of Command.

In the Pickton case it may have taken longer than it should have to see the situation for what it was but once that happened, from what I saw, no effort was spared.  Iím not saying that mistakes werenít made.  Cops are human and therefore imperfect.  Iím just saying that errors donít necessarily translate to apathy.  I know that some who were involved in the case have been very badly affected by it.   

One very eloquent and genuine plea for an inquiry came from Lindsay Kines of the Victoria Times-Colonist.  I knew Lindsay when he was covering the police as a Sun reporter and always had a great deal of respect for him.  Whether or not you agree, his column is worth reading.


Bob Cooper is a retired Vancouver police officer. He walked a beat in Chinatown and later worked in the Asian Organized Crime Section and the Homicide Squad.


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