Searching garbage dumps or remote wooded areas is not a new exercise for police when they are looking for the remains of a murder victim. It has been done before both here in Winnipeg and in other jurisdictions. The reasons for mounting such searches are simple. In homicide cases it is more likely that a conviction can be obtained if the victim’s remains are located. The Christine Jack case is proof of that. Secondly, a failure to locate a homicide victim’s remains is hard on the victim’s family. Without a body there can never be a true sense of closure.
For those reasons police should make every reasonable attempt to locate victim’s remains in homicide cases.
The Tanya Nepinak case serves to illustrate what happens when police allow non-operational considerations to cloud their judgment. What is at issue in the Tanya Nepinak case is how police went about determining if a search should be conducted, and if so, the area in which where the search should be concentrated.
Normally when police consider conducting a search for a body in a garbage dump such as the Brady Road Landfill site, it is because they have information either from an accused or witnesses that a body was placed in a dumpster and dumped at a specific location. As a rule if the decision is made to conduct such a search, police have some idea of time frame as well as the location within the landfill where disposal of the body took place.
Without such points of reference a search becomes not only meaningless in terms of the probability of success but also prohibitively expensive.
It would appear that at a certain point during the investigation the police service had such points of reference in terms of time frame and location and announced that a search would be conducted. Then apparently new information came to light which muddied the waters.
It’s then that the Winnipeg Police Service took leave of its senses and abandoned all rational thought and adherence to scientific and investigative principles. Instead of explaining to the victim’s family and the public what they were faced with and calling off the search, they attempted a face-saving exercise based on their “relationship building” credo. Not being prepared to deal with the victim’s family and tell them that a search was useless they attempted a compromise: having an aboriginal elder visit the site, conduct a ceremony, and identify an area to be searched.
The subsequent search of a very small area was not a sound operational decision. The actual search was a token search, an act of going through the motions in the hope that the victim’s family and aboriginal leaders would be mollified.
In the end police searched a very small area, without success. Upon the conclusion of the token search the victim’s family was not satisfied citing concerns that the elder who identified the search area did not represent the family and that the area identified by the family had not been searched.
We are now left to wonder if the direction of future homicide investigations conducted by the Winnipeg Police Service will be based on the dictates of aboriginal elders, the musings of soothsayers and fortune tellers or will police be guided by the results of their investigation.
What do police tell the next victim’s family that asks police to undertake a search of a particular area identified by their chosen elder or religious advisor?
Building relationships with the aboriginal and other minority communities is a laudable goal but not one that should be allowed to supersede operational realities and the facts as they present themselves in a homicide case.
My advice to the police service is this: cut your losses, and come clean. Admit a flawed decision was made. Avoid creating a precedent that could haunt the Police Service for years to come.
Defending a flawed decision reflects poorly on the organization and damages its credibility.