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Pickton inquiry has benefit of hindsight, Vancouver police lawyer warns

Women sing and chant outside of the missing women inquiry in downtown Vancouver, Tuesday, Oct. 11, 2011.

Jonathan Hayward/The Globe and Mail/Jonathan Hayward/The Globe and Mail

The Vancouver Police Department and RCMP sidestepped harsh accusations levelled against them at the Pickton inquiry, urging commissioner Wally Oppal to consider that authorities did not know in the 1990s what they know now.

"Keep in mind you are investigating with the benefit of hindsight," Sean Hern, lawyer for the Vancouver Police Department, said Wednesday during an opening address at the hearing. "When all of us look back at the investigation now, we cannot help but view the events through the prism of knowledge we have since obtained, that there was in fact a serial killer at work and that killer was indeed Robert Pickton."

During the investigation in the late 1990s, police saw hundreds of possibilities and little to suggest which way to find the missing women, he said. "All reasonable possibilities had to be explored," he said.

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Cheryl Tobias, a federal lawyer representing the RCMP, set out what she said the RCMP hoped the inquiry would achieve. The RCMP is looking for a "thorough and comprehensive fact-finding exercise of what police did," she said.

However, the RCMP hopes the commission will understand the circumstances and conditions the police faced as they grappled with the challenge of conducting homicide investigations without human remains or a crime scene, and ensuring police resources were properly allocated to address all demands at that time.

"It is all too easy with the benefit of hindsight to take issue with the past work done and decisions made by individuals in circumstances where they do not have all the information that is known today," Ms. Tobias said.

Fair and constructive criticism is to be expected when warranted, but the commission should not focus on findings of misconduct or punish officials who sincerely wish Mr. Pickton had been caught earlier, she said.

On Tuesday, Cameron Ward, lawyer for families of 18 murdered and missing women, said the families believe the police and criminal justice branch enabled Mr. Pickton to get away with murder and they had "the blood [of the missing women]on their hands." Both police forces "completely botched the handling of the investigation," he said.

Mr. Hern did not refer to the families' accusations. However, he said Vancouver police have acknowledged that they could have and should have done better. "[Mr.]Pickton was known to police, and on many opportunities, the VPD and the RCMP had opportunity to take steps which might have resulted in him being apprehended at an earlier time than he was. For a variety of reasons it did not happen," he said.

He apologized to family members in the inquiry room on behalf of the Vancouver police for the shortcomings of their investigation. He said an internal Vancouver police report, by Deputy Chief Doug LePard, also demonstrated how much more could have been done if RCMP resources "had been properly marshalled and prioritized."

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Vancouver police support the integration of police forces across Metro Vancouver, Mr. Hern said. The fragmentation of policing impeded the Pickton investigation, and a regional police force may have prevented the RCMP investigation from "floundering as it did in 2000," he said.

Integration of policing in Metro Vancouver could be one of the most valuable recommendations of the inquiry, he said. "You should not shy away from the question of regionalization even if the provincial government does not appear to be interested in hearing about it," Mr. Hern said. The provincial government, which is now negotiating a new RCMP contract with Ottawa, has previously dismissed proposals for regional policing in Metro Vancouver.

Mr. Oppal was appointed in October, 2010 to inquire into why Mr. Pickton was not arrested earlier. Mr. Pickton preyed on women from Vancouver's Downtown Eastside for several years before his arrest in February, 2002. He was convicted of second-degree murder of six women and has said he killed 49 women.

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