VANCOUVER - The failed investigations that allowed serial killer Robert Pickton to spend years murdering sex workers before his arrest shouldn't be viewed through the prism of hindsight, lawyers for the Vancouver police and the RCMP told a public inquiry into the case Wednesday.
The two police agencies have been under intense criticism since prostitutes first began disappearing from Vancouver's Downtown Eastside in the 1990s, and the first two days of a provincial public inquiry have already seen both forces accused of racism, prejudice and indifference.
But in their opening statements, lawyers for the police agencies urged commissioner Wally Oppal to judge them based on what officers on the ground knew when they investigated reports of missing women and allegations involving Pickton, rather than measuring them against all the gruesome facts that have emerged since the serial killer's arrest.
"It is all too easy with the benefit of hindsight to take issue with the past work done and decisions made by individuals in circumstances where they did not have all of the information that is known today," said Cheryl Tobias, who represents the RCMP.
"And while fair and constructive criticism by a commission of inquiry is to be expected when warranted, we trust that the commission will not have as its focus the desire to make findings of misconduct or otherwise to punish officials whose good faith and sincere wish that Robert Pickton could have been caught earlier cannot be doubted."
The inquiry has already been told about a series of alleged missteps involving both police agencies.
Those errors include failing to take reports of missing women seriously; ignoring a Vancouver officer who warned there was likely a serial killer at work; failing to tell the public that a serial murderer could be at large; brushing aside tips implicating Pickton; and botching police interviews with Pickton himself.
The Vancouver police released a report last year that was critical of both forces and has apologized on several occasions. The RCMP has never offered such an apology or publicly acknowledged that its officers made mistakes.
Vancouver police's lawyer repeated the force's apology during the public inquiry on Wednesday.
"Let me say directly to the families of the victims: the VPD apologizes for its role in not catching Pickton sooner," said Sean Hern, the lawyer for the Vancouver police and the city's police board.
"It is deeply sorry for the shortcomings of the investigation and it regrets that it did not understand earlier the terrible gravity of the situation the missing women presented."
Still, while the Vancouver police was prepared to take responsibility for the failed investigation, it appeared less willing to accept blame.
"The evidence you hear about the police investigation into the missing women will always be overshadowed by our present knowledge of the terrible reality of what was occurring," said Hern.
"The hindsight that we now have is similar to looking down at the landscape from a bird's-eye view. Today, we see one clear path connecting the Downtown Eastside to the horrors of the (Pickton) pig farm (in Port Coquitlam). But during the investigation itself, the investigators stood on the surface of a flat landscape with hundreds of possibilities and few landmarks to guide them."
Hern acknowledged some officers had strong suspicious that a serial killer was murdering sex workers, but he said it was just one of a number of theories that needed to be considered at the time.
The Vancouver police released an internal report last year that detailed a number of errors throughout the investigation, placing a considerable blame on the RCMP in nearby Coquitlam, which was investigating Pickton even as he continued bringing sex workers to his farm and butchering them.
An internal RCMP review was released by the inquiry this week. The RCMP investigated Pickton after an assault on a sex worker in 1997, for which attempted murder charges were dropped by the Crown, and later when tips alleged Pickton was harming prostitutes from Vancouver.
Prepared in 2002 in response to a civil lawsuit, the report admits there were difficulties in corroborating allegations that Pickton was involved in killing sex workers, but nevertheless suggested the force did all it could.
The report also says the RCMP was able to work well with the Vancouver police, in contrast to allegations that a turf war had erupted between the two forces, and it complained that scarce resources were spread across a number of high-profile investigations, making it difficult to pursue Pickton with more vigour.
"It is easy to sit back and examine the Pickton file in hindsight," says the report. "It would be remiss if the review team did not comment on the fact that all members involved were dedicated and diligent in carrying out a proper investigation based on the information at hand."
Pickton was arrested in 2002, and a massive search of his farm uncovered the remains or DNA of 33 women. He was eventually convicted of six counts of second-degree murder and sentenced to life in prison with no chance of parole for 25 years.
More than a dozen of those women disappeared after police first identified Pickton as a possible suspect.
After his arrest, Pickton boasted to police that he killed 49 women.