05/08/2012 03:37 EDT | Updated 07/08/2012 05:12 EDT

Pickton inquiry hears need for regional force to replace 'patchwork' policing

VANCOUVER - The greater Vancouver area needs a single, unified police force to fix the communication breakdowns that hampered the investigations into Robert Pickton and the missing sex workers he murdered, the public inquiry into the case heard Tuesday.

But experts and even the commissioner overseeing the hearings acknowledged there is little political will to rip apart the "patchwork" of municipal forces and RCMP detachments that currently blanket B.C.'s Lower Mainland and replace them with a regional police department.

The issue of regional policing has always been just below the surface at the inquiry, which has heard allegations that poor communication and a turf war between the Vancouver police and the RCMP in suburban Port Coquitlam were major factors in the failure to catch Pickton sooner.

Rob Gordon, a criminologist at Simon Fraser University, said those problems are inevitable when multiple police forces are investigating cases that span jurisdictional boundaries.

"What's required, quite clearly, is the creation of single police services operating in the large metro areas of this province. We're the last province to do it, and quite frankly it's absurd," Gordon told the inquiry during the latest in a series of informal policy forums.

Currently, British Columbia has the single-largest contingent of RCMP officers in the country, primarily because the Mounties act as the local police force in almost every community, even in the continuous sprawl of the Lower Mainland.

Vancouver, the province's largest city, has its own police department. Surrey, B.C.'s second-largest community, relies on the Mounties.

Other communities in the Vancouver area with their own forces include West Vancouver, New Westminster, Abbotsford, Port Moody and Delta. The rest, including Port Coquitlam, where Pickton's farm was located, are policed by the RCMP.

The picture in and around Victoria is similar.

The inquiry has heard evidence that poor communication and competing priorities slowed the progress of both the Vancouver police, which was investigating reports of missing sex workers, and the Mounties, who were focusing on Pickton.

Investigators in Vancouver considered Pickton the top suspect in what they believed was a serial murder case as early as 1998, but that information wasn't communicated to the RCMP, which allowed its own investigation to lay dormant for months at a time, the inquiry has heard.

RCMP investigators were treating the case as historical, assuming sex workers had stopped disappearing in Vancouver's Downtown Eastside, even though Vancouver police continued to take new reports of missing women.

"One of the things that stands out for me is the very obvious dominance of competition, rather than collaboration and co-ordination," said Gordon.

"It seems unavoidable, but I think it gets reduced dramatically when everybody is working for the same organization and is not facing different training and different backgrounds in their workplace culture."

There have been perennial calls for regional policing in the greater Vancouver area for decades, but the idea always faces resistance from municipal politicians who want to retain local control.

Vancouver's mayor and police chief have publicly expressed support for a regional force. Nearly every other city in the Lower Mainland has said the opposite.

Oppal heard the same concerns in the mid-1990s, when he oversaw a review of policing in B.C. He recalled a meeting in the small city of Oak Bay, near Victoria, which continues to have its own police force.

"I remember in Oak Bay, we were lucky to get out alive in a meeting one night when I suggested the present form — I call it patchwork policing — doesn't really make much logical sense," said Oppal.

"It keeps coming up, but there has to be a political will to do that, and so far it hasn't existed."

The province's justice minister, Shirley Bond, said her government has no immediate plans to consider regional policing, but she said she'd listen to whatever recommendations Oppal makes.

"(There's) no intent to change anything dramatically at this point; we're going to wait and see the recommendations that commissioner Oppal brings forward," Bond told reporters in Victoria on Tuesday.

Bond said the province is instead focusing on creating integrated units, which bring together multiple police agencies in areas such as gangs and homicide.

The RCMP, which would lose a sizable contingent of its officers if regional forces were established in Vancouver and Victoria, also argues the status quo is working.

Chief Supt. Janice Armstrong of the RCMP said the move to integrated units has improved co-operation among police agencies.

"If a large-scale incident does occur in the Lower Mainland, then the full force of those integrated teams can be brought to bear — if you're in a small community, it doesn't matter," Armstrong told the inquiry.

"We certainly do work very closely with other police departments ... and in my opinion we consistently demonstrate very good co-operation and collaboration."

The province recently signed a new 20-year agreement with the RCMP, but the contract includes a clause that allows either the province or municipalties to pull out with two years' notice.

Pickton was arrested in February 2002 and later convicted of six counts of second-degree murder.

The remains or DNA of 33 women eventually found on his farm. He once told an undercover officer that he killed 49.