Toronto police chief says he wasn't 'pointing fingers' at LGBTQ community
Jackie Dunham and Graham Slaughter, CTVNews.ca
Published Tuesday, February 27, 2018 2:58PM EST
Last Updated Tuesday, February 27, 2018 9:55PM EST
Toronto’s police chief insists he wasn’t “pointing fingers” after he suggested that an accused serial killer might have been stopped sooner had members of the LGBTQ community reached out to police earlier.
In a sit-down interview with the Globe and Mail, Chief Mark Saunders said the early investigation into the case was held back due to a lack of information.
“We knew that people were missing and we knew we didn't have the right answers. But nobody was coming to us with anything,” Saunders said in the interview published Tuesday. “Was I satisfied with what we did? At the time, with the information that we had, the answer is yes.”
He added that police knew “something was up” but investigators “did not have the evidence.”
“If anyone knew before us, it's people who knew him very, very well,” Saunders said.
The chief’s comments drove a new wedge into an already frayed relationship between the police force and Toronto’s LGBTQ community. Community leaders say it was their advocacy -- such as a town hall meeting held months before police linked the missing persons cases -- that kept the story in the public eye.
Since mid-2017, posters of the missing men were posted throughout the gay village, and family members of Andrew Kinsman, one of the missing men, organized volunteer-led search parties. Facebook posts connecting the missing men – some of whom share a striking physical resemblance – had been circulating online for months.
Bruce McArthur, 66, was arrested in January. He is charged with six counts of first-degree murder in connection with the deaths of Skandaraj Navaratnam (Skanda), Majeed Kayhan, Soroush Mahmudi, Dean Lisowick, Selim Esen, and Andrew Kinsman.
Investigators say there could be more victims, and that the investigation is ongoing.
In an interview with CP24, Saunders responded to the public outcry following the Globe and Mail article.
“Right off the bat, if there is anything that I said that was misconstrued or taken in the wrong context, then I definitely apologize for that,” Saunders said Tuesday evening. “But in no way, shape or form was that me trying to point fingers.”
Saunders said that anyone who has worked with him knows that he has never been “a blame kind of person.”
“I’ve always looked for solutions,” Saunders said.
Asked what he would do differently in the investigation with all the information he has now, Saunders said his focus would be police “messaging” around getting civilians to come forward with information.
“I would take a serious, hard look at is our messaging right,” he said, adding that a lot of people “vet” information before they come forward to police.
“A lot of people vet information and they don’t do it ill intended and I think that’s something to recognize,” he said.
“I think they’re thinking, boy I have this little piece (of information), but I don’t want to give this little piece because I don’t want someone getting arrested by the police because I have this little piece (of information) -- not understanding that you only represent one piece of the jigsaw puzzle.”
“And so that’s certainly one of the issues I would like to message a little bit better,” he said.
Regardless, Saunders said he wants to hear from the community about how the force can do its job better.
“If there is something wrong that we have done, I certainly would ask the community as a whole, not just the specific community, but as a community, as the city of Toronto, what do we as an agency need to do differently?”
Moving forward, Saunders said he wants to work on building a relationship of greater trust between police and the public.
Asked whether he would endorse an inquiry into the missing men, Saunders said he would support “anything that will enhance the accountability and trust factor of our organization.”
Saunders released an audio recording of the Globe and Mail interview Tuesday, he said, so that the community could judge the discussion for themselves.
Members of the city’s LGBTQ community have accused the police chief of passing blame.
Nicki Ward, an LGBTQ community advocate, called Saunders’ comments “unhelpful” during an interview with CTV News Channel Tuesday.
“It does sound a lot like victim-blaming and frankly, it doesn’t seem to be founded in fact,” she said.
“The first missing person was in 2010 and as a result of community outcry, Project Houston was opened in 2012. It was then closed down in 2014; thereafter, the community again came to the fore… these initiatives were driven by the community in the first place.”
Kristyn Wong-Tam, the city councillor for the village, agreed that residents in the community were active during the investigation into the disappearances.
“The community actually did rally themselves and put themselves out there by doing search parties, by putting up posters in the neighbourhood, they were talking to one another,” she told CTV Toronto.
“I know that the police were receiving information so I find the police chief’s comments a little bit unsettling.”
Ward said on the local level, policing in the community has been good, but she can’t say the same for the entire organization.
“The relationship with senior management is highly problematic as evidenced by these remarks. We continue to reach out. We continue to try and be collegial, but this seems, to say the least, to be incredibly unhelpful.”
Mayor defends chief
Toronto Mayor John Tory told reporters that he has “no sense whatsoever” that Chief Mark Saunders blames members of the city’s LGBTQ community for not coming forward earlier with information about McArthur.
“There is no one who is suggesting any blame belongs on victims of horrific crimes,” Tory said on Tuesday. “We are all grieving as a city with the LGBTQ and Church-Wellesley community generally.”
Tory added: “The ultimate objective is one very simple objective, which is to increase and restore any trust lost between the police and the LGBTQ community and we are going to keep working on that every single day.”
With files from CTV Toronto and CP24