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Oppal presses for police reform a year after Pickton inquiry findings

Missing Women Inquiry Commissioner Wally Oppal at the public release of his findings in mid-December 2012. The province had received his five-volume report
Missing Women Inquiry Commissioner Wally Oppal at the public release of his findings in mid-December 2012. The province had received his five-volume report 'Forsaken' a few weeks earlier.
— image credit: Black Press file photo

The head of B.C.'s Missing Women Inquiry says he's pleased with some of the actions taken in the year since he issued 65 recommendations aimed at protecting vulnerable women from a future serial killer.

But Commissioner Wally Oppal told Black Press he wants much more done, particularly with his recommendation of creating a regional police force for Metro Vancouver.

Oppal acknowledges various improvements in policing since botched, badly coordinated investigations let serial killer Robert Pickton stalk addicted sex-trade workers in Vancouver's Downtown Eastside for years until his arrest in 2001.

"They have more regional cooperation and they have better communications," Oppal said, citing improved police databases, the regional homicide squad IHIT and other integrated teams.

"But still the present patchwork of policing really makes no sense," he said. "The evidence was quite clear – if we'd had a regional police force a number of murders would have been prevented."

The mix of municipal police forces and RCMP detachments across the region was one of his main targets for reform but several Metro mayors have resisted any change, fearing a regional force might mean less local control over policing or less coverage if officers are pulled away to regional priorities.

Oppal contends a regional force could still be created that allows decentralized community-based policing that respects their wishes.

The province this month announced a pending review of policing in the new year that is expected to consider further integration of forces and potential alternate models.

Victoria is also funding more work to combat sexual exploitation and human trafficking, which often sees criminals lure girls from small towns and reserves into drug-addicted prostitution in the Lower Mainland.

"I do recognize that the situation is much improved from what it was when Pickton was killing women," Oppal said. "The likelihood is that he would be apprehended quicker. But I can't say it couldn't happen again."

The provincial government's move to fully fund the WISH drop-in centre in the Downtown Eastside is one of the steps Oppal credits.

The province says it has fully implemented three recommendations and is working on numerous others.

Ernie Crey, brother of murdered woman Dawn Crey, said he fears the drive for change has faltered since the resignation of former Lieut-Gov. Steven Point as the "champion" for Oppal's recommendations.

Point left as families of Pickton's victims launched civil lawsuits against police forces and the government seeking compensation.

Crey said the province must name a successor to Point "to drive the process forward."

He also said that if the province had compensated victims' children – as Oppal recommended – the families likely wouldn't be in court suing the authorities and much more progress might have been made.

One initiative both Oppal and Crey said should be pursued is an intercity bus service between northern B.C. communities along the so-called Highway of Tears where many women have vanished hitchhiking.

Justice Minister Suzanne Anton said the province is making significant progress on many of the inquiry's recommendations.

"None of us want to see something like this tragedy happen again in British Columbia," she said after meeting with advocacy groups Monday. " The province is committed to building a legacy of safety and security for vulnerable women."

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