Toronto police have implemented just 10% of missing persons’ cases review recommendations

Toronto police have implemeted just a fraction of the recommendations from last year’s landmark review into its handling of missing persons’ cases and some in the LGBTQ+ community say the changes can’t come soon enough.

Police say they have have implemented 15 of the 151 recommendations made in the extensive review published in April 2021, which found “serious flaws” and “systemic discrimination” in the force’s investigation of numerous disappearances — including by the victims of serial killer Bruce McArthur.

The force’s Missing and Missed Implementation Team says another 100 recommendations are still in progress and 36 have yet to be acted upon. CBC Toronto reported in May that none of the recommendations had yet been implemented a full year after the report’s initial release.

Toronto-based lawyer and long-time gay activist Douglas Elliott told CBC Toronto he’s disappointed with the lack of progress made so far. Elliott was among the first voices demanding a public inquiry following McArthur’s arrest.

“I’m impressed that there is such a well-structured follow-up mechanism for the recommendations,” he said.

“Yet … there’s very few of them that are complete and there’s too many of them that appear to have not been started at all.”

Douglas Elliott, a Toronto-based lawyer and long-time gay activist, pictured here in 2021, says he’s concerned with the amount of Missing and Missed recommendations that haven’t been started yet. (Submitted by Douglas Elliott)

The Missing and Missed review was first ordered in 2018 following the arrest of McArthur, who was found guilty of killing eight men in Toronto’s Gay Village, and the 2017 death of Alloura Wells, a trans woman whose body was found in a ravine. 

The report that followed, led by former judge Gloria Epstein, included 151 recommendations on how to improve missing persons investigations to better serve the communities involved. 

First year involved hiring, administrative changes

Desmond Ryan, a community representative with the police’s MMIT team and retired police detective, says he’s very happy with the progress so far. 

“I’m really impressed with what the Toronto Police Service has been able to do, how quickly they’ve been able to turn and the meaningful responses they’ve had to these recommendations,” he said. 

Ryan admitted that “nothing really got done” in the first year, but he said that much of that time was used to hire more people and to implement administrative changes that would allow for the team to move forward.

In a Twitter video posted by Toronto police Wednesday, MMIT co-chair and community representative, Haran Vijayanathan, said a number of steps were taken to ensure police understand the needs of the communities they serve.

“This fostered an informed and safe space to have difficult and constructively critical conversations,” he said. “And it ensured systemic change on how police addresses missing persons cases.”

Ryan also said that out of the recommendations that are currently in progress, many are very close to being implemented.

Real change needed sooner than later, advocate says

But while the recommendations continue to be implemented, police are still actively interacting with marginalized communities every day, said Elliott. 

That’s why he wants to see real changes being implemented sooner rather than later.

“The big problem we see in police services across Canada today is there’s a lot of lip service paid to equality for our community,” he said. “But when you look at what’s happening on the ground and in the day-to-day interactions of police with our community, it’s often quite a different story.”

He pointed again to the McArthur murders as an example of the need for change in how the police interact with these communities.

“People literally died because of homophobia, because of systemic homophobia in the police service,” he said. “That shows a lack of professionalism in the Toronto Police Service that any police officer who is worth his or her salt should be concerned about.”

Finding ways to build trust with marginalized communities is a top priority for the MMIT, Ryan said. 

“The police don’t work at all without the community,” he said. “If the person doesn’t feel comfortable calling the police to say someone is missing, then that investigation isn’t going to go very well.”

The city’s new police chief, Myron Demkiw, who was among those who raided the infamous Pussy Palance bathouse in 2000, said earlier this week his priority is building trust with communitiesthat feel the force has failed them in past.

Liaison officer program to be expanded

The MMIT isn’t looking just to tick boxes, Ryan said. Community engagement has been critical to the implementations achieved so far.

One of the ways the MMIT is actively looking to embrace community engagement is by expanding the liaison officer program to encourage open dialogue with those underserved communities. 

That will involve having more officers, often members of those communities themselves, available to interact with the public in non-emergency situations.

“It rests with the Toronto Police Service to create those opportunities for people to interact with police in a not scary manner,” Ryan said. 

“Because for most people, whenever you’re dealing with the police, it’s scary.”

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