Missing persons unit in crisis

Chad Skelton
Vancouver Sun

Tuesday, September 27, 2005

Overworked officers, inadequate supervision and shoddy record-keeping at the Vancouver police missing persons unit have compromised its ability to solve cases, including identifying "possible serial crimes," according to an internal audit obtained by The Vancouver Sun.

The Vancouver police department has been criticized for not taking the disappearance of dozens of women from the Downtown Eastside in the 1990s seriously enough and not giving enough consideration early on to the possibility that a serial killer was at work.

Robert Pickton, arrested in 2002 by a joint RCMP-Vancouver police department task force, is currently facing charges of first-degree murder in connection with 27 of those women.

But a detailed audit of the missing persons unit completed last year raises troubling questions about what, if any, lessons the VPD has learned from the missing women case.

The 54-page audit, marked "CONFIDENTIAL," was written by retired Insp. John Schouten for Deputy Chief Doug LePard.

A copy of the report was obtained by The Sun through the Freedom of Information Act.

Among the audit's findings:

- The unit's "ability to carry out its mandate has been compromised by lack of resources," it states. Despite receiving 3,847 missing persons complaints in the previous year -- 315 of which remained unsolved -- there is only one dedicated police investigator in the unit. And that officer, the audit found, also has partial responsibility for liaising with the coroner "to the detriment of missing person investigative needs."

- The lone investigator is supported by a civilian missing-persons coordinator and is supervised by a sergeant with other duties. The small staff means "on a holiday weekend, a missing person call may not be assessed by an investigator for up to 84 hours, and perhaps longer."

- Over the years, the investigator position in the unit has typically been filled by officers "who neared the end of their career or who have had physical afflictions that prevented them from working patrol shifts or duties. . . . With few exceptions, those assigned in pre-retirement have not been as successful, often with lengthy absences, diminished initiative, sometimes with scant investigative and 'people skills.' "

- The sergeant in charge of the unit is so busy with other commitments -- including a position on the police union board and participation in the VPD Pipe Band -- that much of the "day-to-day caseload" of the unit is handled by the civilian coordinator. Despite not having a badge or any formal police training, the coordinator is largely responsible for assessing the seriousness of each file, maintaining investigative notes and visiting potential crime scenes.

- Unlike in other units, there is no systematic review of investigative files by the sergeant in charge, resulting in "insufficient scrutiny of files for potential suspicious missing person cases."

- The staffing problems in the unit mean there is "little active investigation of files" after the first 48 hours. This lack of follow-up, the audit states, "has the potential to embarrass the Vancouver Police Department and could possibly result in civil liability."

- There is no one assigned to review the hundreds of old missing-person cases that remain unsolved. "There is again a need to . . . review historical incidents given the inadequate review practices employed in past years," the audit states. "It would be reasonable to presume that many will never be solved given the age of the missing person and of the potential witnesses, however, some are likely solvable."

- Missing data in computerized investigative files means information is not "accessible for follow-up investigators, or to identify trends or possible serial crimes."

- There are no clear guidelines on when a disappearance should be considered a homicide. "In those cases where suspicious circumstances are involved it is imperative that the police conduct a thorough investigation, at the earliest opportunity, so that no evidence is lost."

Schouten makes 50 separate recommendations in his audit for improving the unit.

He argues it should have "at least" two full-time investigators supported by a civilian administrator to handle the daily volume of new cases and a third investigator to begin working through the backlog of unsolved cases.

Schouten acknowledges the VPD is strapped for resources, but writes "there will be no resolution of the issues identified in this audit without a significant staffing commitment."

The unit had two dedicated investigators as recently as 2003, the audit notes. But in that year, the inspector in charge of major crimes "determined that . . . there was more investigative capacity than required" in the unit and moved one of the officers out.

The VPD also needs to find a better way of dealing with "chronic runaways," Schouten argues.

At-risk youth who repeatedly disappear from group homes for a day or two make up the bulk of the unit's caseload -- in one case, a single youth went "missing" 120 times in a six-month period.

Schouten recommends the department look at moving responsibility for runaways to the VPD's youth squad, or to the Ministry of Children and Family Development, so the missing persons unit can devote its resources to more serious cases.

He also recommends that officers assigned to the unit receive special training.

The Sun contacted the VPD Monday morning to inquire whether any changes have been made to the missing persons unit since the audit was completed in October 2004.

But spokeswoman Const. Anne Drennan said the media relations section was so busy it would be unable to respond to The Sun's questions until today at the earliest.

Drennan also complained that The Sun had not given the department enough time to respond to the audit.

The sergeant in charge of the missing persons unit, John Dragani, was suspended from the force in April after police began an investigation into alleged possession of child pornography on his home computer.

No charges have so far been laid in that case.

- - -

One police officer handles hundreds of unsolved cases.

Clerical staff sent to crime scenes.

Cases assigned to empty desks.

Unit is home to late-career police officers with diminished initiative and scant investigative skills.

No significant investigation of files after the first 48 hours.

A missing person call may not be assessed for 84 hours, or longer, on holiday weekends.

Nobody is assigned to review cold cases, some dating back decades.

Source: Missing Person Unit Review, Vancouver Police Dept., October 2004

 The Vancouver Sun 2005

Case files reveal missing data and errors: audit shows

Chad Skelton
Vancouver Sun

Tuesday, September 27, 2005

A recent audit of the Vancouver police missing persons unit found its case management practices were so poor that some investigations were still assigned to officers who had retired from the force and at least one case was listed as "closed" even though the person was still missing.

The confidential audit, completed in October 2004 by retired Insp. John Schouten, was obtained by The Vancouver Sun through the Freedom of Information Act.

In 2001, the Vancouver police implemented a computerized records management system (RMS) that tracks every step in an investigation and is designed to make collaboration between officers easier.

Department policy states that all reports, tips and notes about a case should be regularly entered into the RMS so cases can be easily reviewed and followed up.

But officers assigned to the missing persons unit -- many of whom were near retirement -- have been slow to adopt the new technology, the audit found.

"The calibre of [computer] entry is substantially lower than in some other investigative units," the audit concluded.

A review of the unit's computerized files discovered "a number of instances of incorrect or missing data" and 49 cases that "cannot be accounted for."

The unit's failure to keep its files complete can cause problems if another investigator has to take over a case.

"Over all, the standards of documentation and record keeping do not meet expectations," the audit stated. "Case management suffers and there is an inadequate trail for subsequent investigators to resume an investigation should new information arise."

Schouten also found several cases that were still assigned to officers who had retired or transferred out of the unit.

"This leads to a concern that investigative leads that could have been pursued were abandoned and continuity of the investigation is lost," he wrote.

The audit found the unit has also done a poor job of liaising with Project Evenhanded, the joint RCMP-Vancouver police department task force that is investigating the disappearance of more than 60 women from the Downtown Eastside.

The VPD transferred several missing person files to Project Evenhanded after the task force was established.

Some of those files have since been returned to the VPD after the task force determined they did not fit its mandate.

What has happened to those returned files, however, is unclear -- because the VPD kept no index of what was sent.

"It was difficult to determine which files had been returned to VPD with results or additional information and no instances could be found where the updated information had been entered in [RMS]," the audit stated.

In at least one instance, a case returned to VPD by Project Evenhanded was listed as "closed" even though the person was still missing, the audit found.

And the unit's older, paper files are also in bad shape.

"Historical files are kept in binders dating back decades," the audit stated. "Some are much more complete than others but many have missing information and are not in keeping with an investigation that may involve suspicious circumstances, foul play and death. Were it not for the absence of a corpse, some would undoubtedly be homicides, and a more detailed binder of documentation would be expected."

Some of the old files "are in significant disarray," the audit found, and "at least 20-25 per cent are missing information."

The VPD's media relations section said it was too busy Monday to answer questions about the missing persons unit and whether any changes have been made since the audit was completed last year.

 The Vancouver Sun 2005

Courtesy of
The Vancouver Sun

Missing persons unit 'beefed up' - Sept 28, 2005



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Updated: August 21, 2016