The Toronto police board voted unanimously to commission an external investigation into how the force conducts missing-persons probes, as members of the city’s LGBTQ community detailed what they said is critically low trust in police.
The independent investigation, initiated by groups within the LGBTQ community and brought forward by Mayor John Tory, comes in the wake of escalating questions about police action — or inaction — in the disappearances of missing people from Toronto’s Gay Village, six of whom are now alleged to be among the victims of alleged serial killer Bruce McArthur.
But the review will not directly address police conduct connected to the ongoing McArthur investigation or any past police contacts with the accused killer, due to the ongoing investigation and future trial.
“It doesn’t mean that all the difficult questions don’t get asked and answered, but it does speak to the question of when,” Tory told the board, reiterating his past call for a provincial public inquiry into the handling of the McArthur case.
Stressing the importance of taking whatever action possible now, Tory’s motion called for an examination of past and current policies around investigations into missing persons, reviewing best practices at other services, and looking at issues of systemic bias. The next step is to form a working group that comprises one member of the board and three community members.
The request for an external review, supported by Toronto police Chief Mark Saunders, came at a meeting where members of the LGBTQ community voiced passionate concerns about police behaviour. Immediately before Thursday’s meeting, a small group of protesters from the group Queers Crash The Beat called for Saunders’ resignation, saying they had no confidence in him.
In an impassioned speech to the police board, Becky McFarlane, with the Church-Wellesley neighbourhood’s 519 Community Centre, urged the board to ensure the external review proposed concrete solutions that will lead to real change.
As it considers how to improve investigations into missing persons, particularly affecting the LGBTQ community, there are still people within that community who are too scared to report concerning activity to police, or feel they are not taken seriously when they do, McFarlane said.
“There is nothing that feels more imperative to me than figuring out a way to move through this quickly,” she said.
Speaking to reporters after meeting, Saunders agreed that it was important to discuss improvements as soon as possible.
“I think it’s very important that we don’t wait for a very long period and if there are opportunities in which we can be better as an organization, if we can enhance relationships then we should definitely be focused on doing just that,” Saunders said.
The urgency of action was also stressed at a news conference earlier Thursday, where a coalition of LGBTQ citizens called on Ontario’s attorney general to immediately launch a public inquiry into Toronto police’s handling of the McArthur investigation.
“The time for that inquiry is now,” said Douglas Elliott, a civil litigation lawyer with Toronto law firm Cambridge LLP. “Our community is grieving. Our community is angry … . We want to know what went wrong. We deserve to know what went wrong.”
Ontario Attorney General Yasir Naqvi said earlier this month that he will consider an inquiry but “we have to be very mindful in terms of the criminal proceedings and the criminal investigation.”
Elliott said there was no need to wait for the conclusion of McArthur’s trial, which will be years away. Citing his involvement in previous public inquiries — including the examination into the 2012 mall collapse in Elliot Lake, and the Krever Inquiry into Canada’s tainted blood scandal — Elliott said criminal probes can, and do, run parallel to public inquiries.
“An inquiry is not going to stop or even impede the ongoing criminal investigation,” Elliott said.
In a statement Thursday, the Alliance for South Asian AIDS Prevention (ASAAP) said it supported a provincial public inquiry, but stressed that Tory’s move for an external review of missing-persons cases could nonetheless examine some aspects of missing-persons cases now connected to McArthur.
Most notably, that could include Project Houston — the Toronto police investigation into three men who went missing between 2010 and 2012 — Skandaraj “Skanda” Navaratnam, Abdulbasir Faizi, and Majeed Kayhan. That probe ended after 18 months when police could find “no evidence to suggest criminal activity.” McArthur is now accused in the deaths of Navaratnam and Kayhan.
“The (Toronto police external) review could assess whether the community was effectively consulted during Project Houston, but any information related to the McArthur case would be excluded. We respect and understand that the scope of the review requires measured and careful delineation,” said the ASAAP statement.
McArthur, 66, is facing six charges of first-degree murder in the deaths of Andrew Kinsman, 49; Selim Esen, 44; Dean Lisowick, 47; Soroush Mahmudi, 50; Kayhan, 59; and Navaratnam, 40.
Questions have been mounting in recent weeks about past interactions between McArthur and police, following revelations that police questioned McArthur in 2016 in connection to an alleged assault on another man. He was let go.
The following year, McArthur is alleged to have killed Kinsman and Esen; police allege he killed Lisowick between April 2016 and March 2017.
The 2016 interaction is the second time police spoke with McArthur in the years before he was charged with murder. McArthur was questioned around the time Toronto police launched Project Houston, sources have told the Star.
McArthur was also convicted of assault with a weapon (a metal pipe) and assault causing bodily harm after an attack on a man in his home in 2001. He pleaded guilty in 2003 and was temporarily barred from the Gay Village and associating with male sex workers. He later received a pardon.
An update on the external investigation is expected next month.