column was published in the North
Shore News on
Sept. 17, 2003)
Same old problems plague police
By Leo Knight
WATCHING the CBC production on Sunday night called The Investigation, a show depicting the police probe into the Clifford Olson file, I was struck with the thought that nothing much has changed.
The Olson file was hindered by a great many problems.
It started with a uniform officer at a detachment getting frustrated because he identified Olson as a prime suspect early on in the investigation and couldn't get anyone at headquarters to listen. As the file progressed, territorial contests developed between police forces and within sections, all to the detriment of the investigation itself. They may have led to the needless deaths of several of Olson's victims.
That was in the summer of 1981.
Now, some 22 years later, many of the same problems still plague police.
Nearly 15 years later, police in southwestern Ontario experienced the same issues when chasing Paul Bernardo, the so-called Scarborough rapist and, later, the killer of teens Kristen French and Leslie Mahaffy.
Then there's the Missing Women file that has dominated the headlines for the past few years in Greater Vancouver. Because of the cross-jurisdictional police agencies involved, information wasn't shared and a concerted effort wasn't made until late in the game.
Indeed, at least two investigators with the Vancouver Police Department (VPD) tried to focus attention on the possibility of a serial killer at large as early as 1998.
At least one of these men even identified Robert (Willy) Pickton as the prime suspect.
It's true that there were no crime scenes and without any evidence to go on, there was just a lot of guesswork as to why there were so many missing prostitutes from the Downtown Eastside.
But, having said that, had sufficient information been shared between the RCMP and VPD, it seems likely the investigation would have been concluded much earlier and perhaps some victims might still be alive.
Some of the other problems depicted in the CBC show are probably even more true today that they were then - things like the police not having enough manpower to properly conduct the investigation and trying to disguise the fact so as not to alarm the public.
I was talking to a VPD member last week about the Loft 6 nightclub shootings.
The department officially says it has 40 officers assigned to the file. I'm told there are three.
The senior police officer told me that he wonders where the other 37 are.
To a degree, this is also why the Missing Women file took so long to get kick-started.
With reports at the time of about 25 missing prostitutes and no evidence to speak of, Vancouver police had precious few resources to take a flyer on trying to track down what might be a serial killer.
Then there's the parochial nature of police forces.
The RCMP at the detachment level is co-operative with other agencies. But ask any municipal police officer, or indeed detachment-level Mountie, what it's like to get information out of the major headquarters sections and you won't get a picture of co-operation.
It's easy to say there should be an even flow of information, but that too becomes fraught with problems when the police are trying to keep a lid on a sensitive investigation.
A problem then occurs when two sections are focused on the same target, such as we saw in the Olson investigation.
The police take a lot of criticism, much of it unfair. But I have to admit, many of the frustrations I felt when doing that job were brought back to mind in crystal clear focus watching that show.
One hopes as a new generation of police officers comes along, many of the systemic problems of the past can be changed.
I have written much over the past few years on the strange case of RCMP Cpl. Robert Read and his attempts to expose corruption at our mission in Hong Kong, and the political interference he faced in his endeavours.
Read was fired by the Mounties, ostensibly for leaking information from his investigation to a daily newspaper editor.
Read appealed his dismissal.
Last week in Ottawa, the External Review Board agreed with Read.
The board's 55-page decision has now been forwarded to the commissioner of the RCMP.
Should he disagree with its assessment and uphold the firing, Read assures me he will appeal to the Federal Court of Canada.
One hopes the commissioner will see the writing on the wall and reinstate Read.
I have never met a more loyal police officer than this man.
Read is a diligent investigator who was simply trying to do the right thing. But he met obstruction after obstruction for his efforts, including, I might add, for some of the reasons cited in this column.
Airing this case out in a public court will be nothing but an embarrassment to the national police force.