Officers speak of difficulty policing Pickton's hunting ground


VANCOUVER For the first time, Vancouver police officers responsible for the Downtown Eastside spoke out Monday at a "collaborative" panel discussion at the Missing Women Commission of Inquiry on how the murder of 49 women could have been prevented.

At an inquiry dominated at times by "lawyered-up" Vancouver Police Department and RCMP police officers, largely concerned with defending their reputations, four now-retired VPD officers spoke frankly about the difficulties of policing a neighbourhood dominated by addiction, poverty and crime of all kinds.

Former VPD Const. Dave Dickson, a beat cop who worked with marginalized eastside residents for his entire 28-year career, began by objecting hotly to remarks by lawyer Cameron Ward that a panel of police would not help find out who is responsible for so many women being harmed for decades.

Ward, who represents the families of 25 murdered women, said four police officers can't be properly cross-examined on a panel. Ward also objected that he only found out Monday morning that the panel would include a fourth officer, former VPD Insp. Chris Beach. He told Commissioner Wally Oppal that this kind of police panel "will not help you get at the truth."

Dickson took offence at that. "To say I'm not going to tell the truth because I'm sitting between two police officers, I find that extremely offensive. I waited for years to come here, to this inquiry."

Also on the panel are former Staff Sgt. Doug MacKay-Dunn and former Deputy Chief Gary Greer, both of whom did stints in the Downtown Eastside on patrol, in the jail and as managers.

Dickson, who worked on patrol as a community liaison officer in contact with street-level sex trade workers, said he "became an advocate" for the troubled and addicted women. Dickson also worked as a civilian "sex-trade liaison officer" for the VPD and when that came to an end, in the summer of 2008, he got a job within three days with the Lookout Society, "doing the same thing I've done for years."

As soon as he started walking the beat back in 1980, Dickson said he realized the police system "didn't work very good for a large proportion of the people down there. I'd arrest the same person three times in one week." Dickson switched to his own form of "community policing" one that would take police managers several years to adopt.

Dickson became a street-level advocate for the community, responding to up to 750 pages a month. He went to all the community meetings he could, including the Franciscan Sisters of Atonement, the Downtown Eastside Residents' Association (DERA) and the Salvation Army and also agencies helping sex-trade workers. When Inspector Gary Greer stepped into District 2, primarily the Downtown Eastside in 1999, said Dickson, "he gave me carte blanche to do my work and told me to pick your own days off."

The panel agreed that having a frontline community cop is "expensive," as much as $100,000 a year, because as Beach emphasized, the officer has to be freed up from responding to police calls "in order to be available for 750 pages a month."

Greer noted that the modern approach to policing is that "the police are the public and the public are the police," saying that police should ideally be seen as "the people who are paid to prevent crime and maintain the peace."

Despite all the lofty talk about policing goals and ideals, the panel has yet to address how dozens of women went missing from the Downtown Eastside starting in the 1980s, during the exact period that many of these four officers were on the job.

Convicted serial killer Robert Pickton was found guilty of killing six women, lured with drugs and alcohol from the Downtown Eastside, primarily from the blocks surrounding the VPD station, to Pickton's Port Coquitlam pig farm.

Pickton confessed in jail to killing 49 women but an extensive forensic search of his farm found the remains and DNA of 33 of those women.

The killing spree of Canada's worst serial killer is believed to have started in 1991. Pickton stepped up his pace to a murder almost every six weeks throughout 2001, which is when a joint VPD-RCMP police force was tasked with finding out why so many women were missing.

Accurate information about who Pickton was and evidence of murder, including the bloody women's clothing and other trophies scattered about his pig farm was provided to both the VPD and RCMP as early as 1998. An eyewitness who would eventually become crucial to convicting Pickton was identified in 1999.

The inquiry, which will wrap up formal and panel hearings by the end of April, is tasked with finding out why police didn't stop Pickton from 1997, when he almost killed a Vancouver sex-trade worker on his farm, until Feb. 5, 2002, when his farm was searched on an unrelated firearms matter and evidence swiftly found of the missing women.




Missing Women Tip Line: 1-877-687-3377

Updated: August 21, 2016