Mayor Tory confirms police board, not chief, will initiate missing-persons review
Community are members worried that a review initiated by Toronto's police chief, rather than the board, would not be truly independent.
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After community groups raised concerns about police involvement in a proposed external review of missing-persons cases, Mayor John Tory and Toronto police confirm it will be the civilian board officially initiating the independent probe when it meets next week — not the chief.
In a statement Friday, Toronto police Chief Mark Saunders responded to mounting criticism about his force’s handling of the ongoing investigation into alleged serial killer Bruce McArthur, including criticism over the revelation that McArthur was questioned by police in 2016 but let go.
Calling the concerns raised “serious enough to warrant a review,” Saunders announced that he would be “pursuing an independent external review,” with the support of Tory and police board chair Andy Pringle.
The remarks prompted concerns from community members that a review initiated by the chief would not be truly independent. In a statement released hours after Saunders’, the Alliance for South Asian Aids Prevention (ASAAP) criticized the chief’s language, saying the independent review must be commissioned not by Toronto police but by its civilian board, “whose scope and procedure is determined with direct representation from the LGBTQ community.”
In a statement to the Star this week, a spokesperson for Tory said when the mayor presents a motion for an external missing-persons review next week, it will be “very clear” that the board is making the request.
Pringle told the Star that he didn’t think it mattered who initiated it, but later said in a statement that the review will be commissioned by the board. He stressed that Saunders suggested the review “as early as a number of weeks ago.”
Meaghan Gray, Toronto police spokesperson, said the service supports an external report commissioned by the board. In his statement Friday, Saunders said the review should consider the force’s investigative processes as well as systemic issues of bias.
Shakir Rahim, a board member with ASAAP, said the group is pleased the probe will be formally requested by the board, emphasizing that the review “must be guided and informed by the communities calling for accountability and change.”
“It is also important that the Toronto Police Service provide unfettered access, subject to legally required restrictions, to any records that may be relevant for the review,” Rahim said in a statement Tuesday.
McArthur, 66, is charged with six counts of first-degree murder in the deaths of Andrew Kinsman, Selim Esen, Majeed Kayhan, Soroush Mahmudi, Dean Lisowick and Skandaraj “Skanda” Navaratnam. Police allege the killing spree began as early as 2010 and stretched until 2017.
As reported by the Star last week, McArthur was questioned by Toronto police in 2016, after a man went to Toronto police to say that McArthur tried to strangle him during what a police source said was an otherwise consensual sexual encounter. McArthur was let go.
The 2016 questioning appears to be the second time the accused serial killer came into contact with police. Sources told the Star McArthur was questioned prior to the 2016 incident, around the time Toronto police launched Project Houston. The project probed the disappearances of three men who went missing from Toronto’s Gay Village between 2010 and 2012.
Project Houston began in November 2012 and was closed 18 months later after police failed to uncover any evidence of criminal activity. McArthur is now accused of killing two of those three men, Navaratnam and Kayhan.
Saunders, who was a deputy chief at the time, was “regularly briefed during the Project Houston investigation,” Gray said in an email.
A central difference between a chief-initiated review and one requested by the board is the optics, said Alok Mukherjee, former Toronto police board chair.
He was at the helm during two high-profile independent reviews: the first by retired judge John Morden into Toronto police handling of the 2010 G20 summit, and a second commissioned by then-chief Bill Blair into his officers’ interactions with people in mental health crisis.
Conducted by retired judge Frank Iacobucci, the second review was spurred by the fatal shooting of Sammy Yatim by Const. James Forcillo, who was later convicted of attempted murder in the teen’s death (he has appealed). Blair commissioned the independent probe as part of a mandatory review after an investigation by Ontario’s police watchdog, the Special Investigations Unit, though it was a rare move to bring in an outside reviewer.
With the proposed missing-persons review, it will be important that it “not only be seen to be independent, but be independent,” Mukherjee said. This is particularly true given that Saunders was briefed during the Project Houston investigation, he said.
“He may or may not have any involvement directly, but there is a perception that there could be a conflict of interest,” Mukherjee said.
The proposed external review is one of several probes into the McArthur case and missing-persons cases generally. Last week, lead McArthur investigator Det. Sgt. Hank Idsinga revealed that he had initiated an internal probe by Toronto police’s professional standards unit after uncovering “concerning” information in connection to a previous occurrence involving McArthur. The Star has previously reported that homicide investigators now probing the case did not know about the 2016 incident until after McArthur’s arrest this year.
Toronto police are also in the midst of an ongoing internal review into their handling of missing-persons cases, a probe initiated in December, prior to McArthur’s arrest.
Tory has also called for the province to consider holding a public inquiry at the close of any criminal proceedings. Ontario’s Attorney General, Yasir Naqvi, told reporters last week he was reviewing the request.
McArthur is due back in court Wednesday.
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