When dozens of women disappeared from Vancouver's Downtown Eastside in the 1990s, police did next to nothing, a point driven home by a public inquiry report that this week blasted the force for investigative failures triggered by systemic bias.
The Vancouver Police Department responded Tuesday, holding a news conference to not only offer an unreserved apology for its handling of the missing women investigation, but also to highlight how much the force says has changed.
Two community groups agreed with that assessment, saying the police department's relationship with Downtown Eastside residents has improved.
Chief Jim Chu, who issued the apology, was joined at the news conference by Constable Linda Malcolm, the department's sex industry liaison officer. Constable Malcolm – who arrived late because she was assisting a witness in a sex offence case – described her role as working with women at risk, as well as marginalized and vulnerable populations.
Constable Malcolm said the primary change since serial killer Robert Pickton preyed on women from the poverty-stricken, drug-ridden neighbourhood is police are far more engaged with the community and have developed key contacts.
"Being on the ground and being able to connect with somebody who has a first-hand report to make, that's where my job comes in," Constable Malcolm told reporters.
"To be effective, [you have] to know the building managers and the front-line workers who can then look back in their records and help us check out and provide us with more information to pass on to the investigators."
Constable Malcolm said the department's relationship with Downtown Eastside residents blurs the line between enforcement and advocacy. She said she has participated in community programs to discuss personal safety, and has helped drug users get into detox programs. The department has also implemented the Sister Watch program, which is designed to combat violence against women in the Downtown Eastside.
"I think a lot of it is really about building trusting relationships," Constable Malcolm said.
Kate Gibson, executive director of the WISH Drop-in Centre, which provides a variety of services for prostitutes, said in an interview the police department has done a better job of engaging Downtown Eastside residents in recent years. "I think, particularly in the last couple of years, that they are trying hard to build relationships that will support the whole community," she said.
In his report, missing women inquiry commissioner Wally Oppal urged the province to provide funding for existing centres that offer emergency services to women in the sex trade. Mr. Oppal wanted the centres to remain open 24 hours a day. The province announced shortly after the report's release that it would provide WISH with $750,000.
Katrina Pacey, litigation director with the Pivot Legal Society, said in an interview that Constable Malcolm does excellent work. But, Ms. Pacey said, even Constable Malcolm can't be everywhere at once and provide all the assistance the women of the neighbourhood need. One of Mr. Oppal's recommendations was that the province fund additional full-time sex-trade liaison officers in the Lower Mainland.
While Ms. Pacey agreed the police department's relationship with Downtown Eastside residents has improved, she said there is room for progress. "I think there is a greater awareness among officers, generally, about the circumstances that women experience in this neighbourhood and the systemic issues that they face. The problem is that's not consistent across the department. Women still have negative experiences, depending on who shows up when they make their 911 call," she said.
When asked during the news conference if he accepted Mr. Oppal's finding that there was systemic bias, a point Vancouver police disputed at the inquiry, Chief Chu said, "I think there were assumptions made about the victims in the late 1990s. We certainly found that in our own internal review. The important thing, though, is today we must do everything we can to understand the victims and do everything we can to investigate the cases, to bring the suspects before the courts, to identify them, and to not let anything impede our progress in these investigations."