Pickton inquiry report released amid torrent of criticism

Supporters place signs with the faces of missing women on a basket of roses. (Reuters)Despite an announced 1 p.m. PT release time today, the contents of Oppal's 1,448 page inquiry report were made public hours earlier thanks to leaked advance copies of the report from victims' family members.

The long-awaited report includes 63 recommendations, including establishing police accountability to communities, creating a single regional police force for the Greater Vancouver area, improving missing person policies and, perhaps most important to human rights groups, putting in place measures that will help prevent violence against vulnerable women.

Oppal wrote that the Vancouver Police and RCMP "both contributed to a series of critical failures with respect to their missing women investigations and to Pickton’s crimes," the National Post reported, adding that Oppal cited the failure of the police to fully investigate Pickton and to provide sufficient resources to the investigations.

[ Related: Facts about the 33 women whose remains or DNA were found on Robert Pickton’s farm ]

In the report, Oppal describes his two significant findings:

"First, the missing women investigations were shaped, in large part, by the police failure to get to know the women — an essential step in any investigation of this type is to learn as much as possible about the victim or potential victim. This failure to get to know the victim group meant that inaccurate information about the women, and in particular the belief in the likelihood that they would 'turn up,' infiltrated all aspects of the missing and murdered women investigations," he writes.

"Second, I find that the additional step of 'confirming' the women as missing, rather than accepting a missing person report at face value as policy dictates, was fundamentally wrong and had perverse effects.

The result was treating the investigations as 'reviews' rather than urgent, priority investigations. This approach therefore likely contributed to the police not realizing the women continued to go missing until 2001."

Oppal further criticized the "systemic bias" that permitted "faulty stereotyping of street-involved women in the [Downtown Eastside] to negatively impact missing women investigations."

The Missing Women Commission of Inquiry report was expected to explain why Pickton wasn't caught before 2002 — the inquiry heard that police had evidence linking the killer with the disappearances of sex-trade workers years before he was finally arrested — and what should be done to prevent similar failures by police in the future.

[ Related: Facts about the public inquiry into the Robert Pickton case ]

The report is unlikely to satisfy its greatest critics. Some advocacy groups claim the inquiry was flawed from the start as it "was too narrowly focused on police and failed to give adequate voice to the vulnerable women it was set up to protect," CBC News reports.

Last month, West Coast Legal Education and Action Fund (LEAF), the Pivot Legal Society and the B.C. Civil Liberties Association released a report that criticized the way the inquiry was conducted.

Many human rights groups, alarmed by the lack of funding for legal representation for aboriginal and women's groups, refused to participate in the inquiry.

"I will say it again; this was a missed opportunity to include the voices of marginalized women, of marginalized communities. It perpetuated the very problems it sought to alleviate," Kasari Govender, executive director of West Coast LEAF, said last month.

Lawyer Neil Chantler believes the inquiry neglected to look at systemic problems and prejudices, including sexism and racism allegations, within police forces and instead focused on "technical policing failures."

[ Related: Pickton inquiry accused of failing marginalized women ]

Both the Vancouver police and the RCMP have offered apologies — and disclaimers that including blaming each other — for not catching Pickton earlier.

Pickton, who is currently serving a life sentence, was convicted of six counts of second-degree murder. CBC News reported that the DNA of 33 women was found on his farm. Pickton once told an undercover officer that he killed 49 women.

Commissioner Wally Oppel, the former judge who led the inquiry, hopes the cynics will give the report a chance:

"I'm urging those people who have had differences with the inquiry to come forward and co-operate," he said. "The violence against women and the tragedies that we have experienced in our communities are far more important than the individual differences about the process of the inquiry."

"We have an opportunity to make real change in British Columbia; change that helps to better protect our most vulnerable citizens, and by doing so, leaves a positive and lasting legacy for the missing and murdered women," Oppal wrote on the commission's website last month.

Ernie Crey, the brother of one of Pickton's victims, hopes the report will include "concrete suggestions" on how to improve policing and will help facilitate an attitude shift toward those vulnerable to violence.

"Police allowed this guy to repeatedly slip through their hands," said Crey. "Had they been better co-ordinated, they would have nabbed him much sooner."

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Journalist and author Stevie Cameron, who has written two books about Pickton's case, believes that Oppal's report, despite the criticism, still has value:

"I hope it comforts families of the missing women who see their fears and concerns and anger and all of those things were understood and have been taken into account as he brings this report out. I think that he cared very much and I know his staff cared very much and I think this will be reflected in his report," Cameron said in a Globe and Mail interview.

Cameron added that officials didn't get off easy during the inquiry:

"Vancouver Police were held to account during his investigation. I sat there and watched them squirm while they tried to explain themselves and brought in big shot lawyers — in one case anyway — from Ontario, of all places, to try and defend themselves. I would be very interested to know what he's going to say about police who ignored the problem and then tried to duck and weave at the end. That's a very important issue to be looking for."

Only time will tell if its contents can inspire real lasting change in the way crimes against marginalized women are treated by the law — and if policing techniques and strategies can be improved to catch a killer earlier.