December 01, 2005

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Loyalty to the truth sometimes hard to find

In a perfect world, there would be a direct and unbiased relationship between the accumulation of evidence and our realization something is true.


Mario Stefani, a Venetian poet, is quoted in John Berendt's new book, The City of Falling Angels, as saying “Telling the truth is the most anticonformist act I know.” However, a friend of mine once remarked that he did not find pursuit of the truth controversial, just uncommon.

What is truth? There are both objective and subjective truths. In Kurosawa's film, Rashomon, the details of a brutal crime are recounted differently by the killer, the victim, his wife, and a witness. Each of these individuals distorts the objective truth into a subjective truth, for reasons of personal interest.

So first let us distinguish truth from belief. What we believe is our truth. What we know determines our beliefs. Therefore, they have different subjective truths (though arguably there is an ultimate objective truth in most cases).

If we all believed in the same thing, there would be only one truth and there would be no controversy. Of course, this is rarely the situation.

In a perfect world, there would be a direct and unbiased relationship between the accumulation of evidence and our realization something is true. As evidence accumulates, our certainty should increase. But objective certainty and personal realization do not always track well because of personal biases. If the realization is undesirable, it may take more evidence (a higher level of certainty) to convince us that something is true. The greater the undesirability of the realization, the greater this distortion may be. Conversely, we may believe in desirable outcomes sooner than is justified by the evidence.

During the commission of inquiry into the wrongful conviction of David Milgaard, a former Saskatoon police inspector testified he wanted to follow up on information that might have helped exonerate Milgaard. A former detective said he did his part to inform superiors about weaknesses in the case. The Crown prosecutor who handled the original murder trial confessed he had questions about the case.

I find such testimony difficult to swallow. While doing our independent review, professor Neil Boyd and I spoke to some of these people. They were not interested in re-examining the evidence or in establishing what really happened (the truth). But now, in hindsight, suddenly everyone had doubts.

We are not seeing a lot of loyalty to the truth here. But I suspect many of these people believe they are being factual because they have reconstructed the past.

Let us now turn to the Vancouver Downtown Eastside missing women case. The killer of these women is what is known as a stealth predator. Stealth predators commit their murders in such a fashion that authorities are not aware that a crime has occurred. They often target marginal victims, such as prostitutes, runaways, the homeless and the elderly. The only indication police may have are missing person reports. Many are custodial killers - nurses, orderlies, or doctors, who camouflage their murders as natural cause deaths.

Stealth predators are very dangerous because they are difficult to detect and their crimes challenging to investigate. Their victim counts can be very high. But just because a case is difficult, does not mean it is impossible. It does mean, however, that a different approach may be required.

Community groups in the Downtown Eastside were the first to notice the pattern of missing women. These groups brought the problem to the attention of Vancouver patrol officers and the patrol inspector for that area asked for my assistance. At this time there were 28 identified missing women from Vancouver's rough skid row area, all sex trade workers, many of them drug addicted. The fact that they were not collecting their welfare cheques anywhere in the province pointed towards foul play.

Unfortunately, the management of Vancouver Police Department's (VPD) major crime section did not want to believe a serial killer was operating in Vancouver.

One of the ways to identify the presence of a stealth killer is to apply spatial-temporal clustering techniques used by epidemiologists to detect disease outbreaks. We collected data on unfound missing persons back to 1978 and found that we only had one, none, or, at the most two, such cases annually. But between 1995 and 1998, there was a statistically significant increase. This cluster was too large for the missing women situation to be due to chance.

The major crime section inspector explained this result by arguing that there had not been enough time for these missing persons to be found. Given another five years, the cluster will flatten out.

He was wrong. When we looked at national-level data we found that most people are only missing for two days. After two months, nearly every missing person is found. The major crime section management remained unconvinced.

I proposed four critical analytic questions that any theory accounting for the problem of the missing women had to be able to answer:

Why was this happening now and not before?

Why was this happening in other cities with skid rows?

Why had no bodies been found?

Why were only women, and not men, going missing?

The major crime section put forward several theories, including suggesting the women were victims of pimp or drug murders, had died of overdoses, or in hospitals with inadequate record systems, or were merely missing. Every one of these theories is inadequate in explaining the four critical analytic questions. The last retreat of the major crime section was to argue there was nothing they could do because no bodies had been found. This is equivalent to a fire department saying they cannot respond because they only see smoke, not fire.

As we now know, the women were killed and Willie Pickton has been charged with 27 counts of murder. He was arrested in February 2002, and the case is expected to go to trial in the fall of 2006. Police have collected 100,000 exhibits. The cost of the investigation to date exceeds $100 million.

The missing women were victimized three times. First of all, by whatever it was that forced them to turn to a street life. Then by their murderer. And finally, by how their disappearances were improperly investigated. This is not acceptable in the type of society we like to believe we live in.

Neither the Vancouver police nor the RCMP is blameless in this matter. Both agencies failed to deploy sufficient investigative resources in a timely manner. Communication and cooperation were not as they should have been and this case fell between the cracks.

The VPD has done a comprehensive internal review of this investigation. Such a review helps identify systemic organizational problems. Loyalties often conflict and loyalty to the truth can clash with loyalty to our organization. Complicating this conflict is the reality that organizational loyalty is multidimensional. Do we mean loyalty to our leaders, to our colleagues, to the community or the customer? Maybe, in the end, we just have to be loyal to ourselves.

SFU graduate Kim Rossmo received the Nora and Ted Sterling prize for controversy. He is a research professor in criminal justice at Texas State University, San Marcos. These are some of his comments from the award ceremony. For a longer version check

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