04/30/2012 05:17 EDT | Updated 06/30/2012 05:12 EDT

Pickton inquiry uses study forums to search for policies to protect sex workers

VANCOUVER - The public inquiry into the Robert Pickton case, which has spent months listening to allegations and explanations about why police failed to catch the serial killer, is shifting its focus to policies that could protect the impoverished sex workers of Vancouver's Downtown Eastside.

Dozens of witnesses including police officers, Crown prosecutors and family members of the killer's victims have spent the past six months testifying about their involvement in the various investigations that targeted Pickton and reports of missing sex workers in the late 1990s and early 2000s.

Starting this week, commissioner Wally Oppal moves out of the courtroom for a series of less-formal policy forums, where he will invite suggestions for policies that could better protect the drug addicts and aboriginal women who find themselves vulnerable to predators such as Pickton.

"The genius of the inquiry system is the ability to look back on events and to then look forward on recommendations," commission lawyer Art Vertlieb said in an interview.

"It's the study sessions that really lead to recommendations, and that's what justifies the inquiry system. It's not just a matter of a court case where you're looking back and seeing what happened. The inquiry is about looking forward."

The public inquiry was announced in the fall of September 2010, and it ran into immediate criticism that its terms of reference — focusing almost exclusively on the actions of the police and prosecutors — were too narrow to address the underlying problems that lead women into the survival sex trade in the first place.

Oppal announced the study commission six months later as a compromise, saying the additional set of hearings would give community groups and members of the public a chance to talk to the commission about the broader issues facing vulnerable women, without the rigid constraints of a judicial commission of inquiry.

A keynote address was planned for Monday evening, when Doreen Binder, a member of the Oregon attorney general’s sexual assault task force, was scheduled to give a speech about innovative ways to protect vulnerable and marginalized women.

The forums are set to begin Tuesday — the first of five days of sessions over the next two weeks that will cover topics including the safety of vulnerable women and sex workers, missing person investigations, communication between police and the public, and police accountability.

While the study commission was initially seen as a compromise, Vertlieb insisted the public forums may be even more important than the formal inquiry.

Vertlieb also served as commission counsel for the public inquiry into Polish immigrant Robert Dziekanski's death, which was headed by commissioner Thomas Braidwood. Dziekanski died at Vancouver's airport after he was stunned with an RCMP Taser.

Like the Pickton hearings, the Braidwood inquiry had two phases: the formal hearings into Dziekanski's death, and a study commission examining Taser use in British Columbia.

Vertlieb said Braidwood's study commission was far more important when it came to affecting public policy, prompting the B.C. government and the RCMP to dramatically overhaul their Taser policies.

"The main contribution of the Braidwood inquiry to our society came out of the study commission," said Vertlieb.

"Coming up with recommendations on Taser use does change society. Looking back and finding out what mistakes were made (in the Pickton investigation) doesn't change things going forward."

Lillian Beaudoin, whose sister Dianne Rock's DNA was found on Pickton's farm, has expressed constant frustration with the inquiry during the past six months, arguing it wasn't given enough time and is focusing too narrowly on the police.

Still, Beaudoin is hopeful Oppal's inquiry — particularly the study commission beginning this week — will prompt change, despite its flaws.

"We didn't get the full inquiry that we were hoping for, that's one of our great disappointments, but hopefully at least through this, they may come out with some good recommendations and they will be implemented and help the girls," said Beaudoin.

In addition to the study commission, Oppal will also hear formal testimony from more than a dozen witnesses during the next several weeks, followed by closing submissions at the end of May. His final report is due June 30.

Pickton was convicted of six counts of second-degree murder, though the remains or DNA of 33 women were found on his farm.

He once told an undercover police officer that he killed 49.