Toronto police mark progress with Missing and Missed report recommendations

Click to play video: 'Toronto Police show progress after Missing and Missed report'
Toronto Police show progress after Missing and Missed report
It was a day to mark progress – but at the same time to remember that it took lives lost to get to this point. Toronto police say they have implemented several recommendations since the Missing and Missed Report two years ago, and community members are hopeful for meaningful change – Apr 15, 2023

The Toronto Police Service was joined by members of the community Saturday as its Missing and Missed Implementation Team marked two years since a report that reviewed how the TPS investigates missing person cases.

The civilian-driven review called out the TPS for what it labelled as “serious flaws” in the process. In the end, 151 recommendations were made to help change the path in the Missing and Missed report.

On Saturday, Toronto’s police chief, Myron Demkiw, said it was a day to mark progress, but at the same time recognize how they got to this point — the lives lost.

“I dedicate this report to the victims in the terms of reference of the report,” said Demkiw, who was visibly emotional.

“Neither your pain or your loss is in vain,” he said.

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Toronto police Staff Supt. Pauline Gray, the co-chair of the team, says their main focus was to use a modernized, community-centric approach.

“We have worked to implement each and every recommendation alongside community — with their perspective,” says Gray.

“This has made the process a lot slower, we know, but this has made it way more meaningful as we engaged the community.”

It’s been two years since the report was presented — sparked by several missing persons cases and the public view of how they were handled.

The independent civilian review was ordered by the TPS board following criticism of the investigation into the death of Tess Richey. She was found dead by her own mother just days after being reported missing. The family alleged Toronto police, and particularly the two officers who investigated Richey’s disappearance, failed to properly search for her.

Another case that received a lot of backlash was the investigation into serial killer Bruce McArthur. He was found guilty of killing eight men from Toronto’s gay village, and the death of a trans woman found dead in a ravine. Police were also accused of being slow to warn the public about a serial killer that was at large, preying on gay men.

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The report, which took three years to complete, found “serious flaws” and “systemic discrimination” in the missing persons process. This led police to create a Missing and Missed Implementation Team, tasked with making change. The team, which includes members of the TPS, community members and other stakeholders, consists of more than 30 people.

“It is a completely different way of approaching this challenge. And we’ve had police jurisdictions from across the country who have seen the way we are co-designing and co-delivering this plan,” says Gray.

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Recommendations were designed to improve the service’s policies, procedures, training, education, professional development and culture. Gray says they are committed to a process that is inclusive. The MMIT working groups will help plan and implement the recommendations to ensure community engagement from the beginning of a recommendation to its completion.

Police said the report was drafted by former Ontario Court of Appeal justice Gloria Epstein to “promote efficient, effective and bias-free investigations, and better police relations with the affected communities.” On stage this weekend, she said it was unfortunate she didn’t have this knowledge when she sat on the bench.

“Over the past two years, this committee has broken new ground in creating a process — a process aimed at providing Toronto’s diverse communities with a voice,” said Epstein.

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Epstein says this voice helps create a new relationship between the police service and the city’s marginalized and vulnerable communities.

Haran Vijayanathan, who sits as the co-chair on the MMIT team and is also the director of the Alliance of South Asian AIDS Prevention, says there has been a lot of progress with the plan and the 151 recommendations.

“Because those voices are being told at the table even with our diverse community members on the MMIT, we’re actually having really difficult conversations and challenging the police, and they are challenging us,” says Vijayanathan.

Now the implementation team says more than 100 items are in progress, while 24 have already been implemented. The changes include mandatory training for officers in dealing with vulnerable individuals and people from the LGBTQ2 community.

Rev. Deana Dudley, the acting senior reverend at the Metro Community Church, has been on the team since the beginning.

“I’ve seen a lot more engagement and a lot more active work getting more out about people missing, particularly people who are vulnerable,” says Dudley.

The reverend says she has been impressed with how the changes appear to have been happening — even through the training of officers. Recommendations also saw the implementation of training in relation to gender diversity and trans inclusion.

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“I have been really pleasantly surprised that they are affirmatively looking to improve their relationship with the queer community to educate their officers from the beginning of the training and throughout their career.”

Christa Big Canoe, lead counsel on the National Inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls, sat on the civilian-led review when it was carried out by the team. The Anishinabek lawyer who advocates on behalf of First Nations women and children says although there is still a lot of work to do on improving engagement with Indigenous people, she has seen progress on this file.

“The police service here seems to be taking more seriously the findings of the report and actually putting into place an implementation team,” says Big Canoe.

“The fact that they have already included community members and community groups in that implementation team and hired civilians are good indicators they are moving in the right direction.”

Although a lot of the implementations can’t be visibly seen, most notably, the Toronto Police Services says it has expanded the homicide and missing persons unit. Staffing in the missing persons unit increased from four to eight people, including the hiring of crime analyst Jordan Dunkley.

She says along with providing real data that can help police get information faster, she’s also been trained to use the national missing persons database.

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“That houses all of our information on missing persons, missing children and vulnerable or at-risk persons,” says Dunkley.

Click to play video: 'Art exhibit to honour missing and murdered Indigenous women and children'
Art exhibit to honour missing and murdered Indigenous women and children

Dunkley, who just recently joined the team in the civilian role, says that addition to her toolbelt has been a game-changer. The database allows police services to communicate with each other as they look into the thousands of missing persons reports that come through every day.

“We are the first municipal service to have access to that data. Instead of having to send off a request, which can take days or weeks, I have real-time access and perform queries to match files across Canada.”

Shona Patterson joined the unit as well and is one of the detectives on the team. She says because of support from the community members to push the recommendations forward, with the doubling of the unit staffing, they were able to move from a quality control unit to deploying to different divisions.

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“We built capacity to cover, days, afternoons and on-call overnight. When that 911 call comes in, we’re starting to pick up those risk factors and get boots on the ground,” she says.

“We’re able to jump in and direct or guide or as well as lead an investigation of a missing person in a high-risk situation. So we do feel that is elevating the urgency of missing persons and making a difference out there.”

Toronto police say there are only eight recommendations that have not been started — but given the progress of the nearly 120 others, community partners are hopeful the change will help find loved ones in the future and bring them home.

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