Hundreds of bankers boxes– dusty, worn and frayed at the edges, worn down by the weight of other boxes stacked on top, often damp in the corners, all lodged in inconspicuous backroom places. Out of sight and mostly out of mind, they are spread throughout this Province and the other Provinces; the responsibility of the RCMP, the OPP, the QPP and various scattered Municipal agencies. Historical mysteries sitting, undisturbed, and now in danger of being lost forever.
Each box has scrawled on it in black marker, a number the start of which indicates the year of the file box being created; 73-1234 or 98-5678 indicating 1973 and 1998. Most will have a surname, also written on the outside of the box, underneath the number, the first indication of the box containing information on a life lived and in all likelihood a life taken abruptly away. A snapshot of a moment in time, life stories, lives abruptly ended.
If one lifts the uniformly folded cardboard lids and peek inside one finds manila folders, each folder containing assorted government styled papers, each folder numbered, implying some form of organization. The order of importance often seems haphazard. There will be original documents, photocopies, carbon copies, compact discs, floppy discs, even blueprints and loosely bound photographs. Each document part of a whole, each pointing to a dramatic and often gruesome ending to a life.
Shoved into these boxes will be exhibits, exhibit reports, and boxes of 3 x 5 index cards, clues as to the relevance of the folders. Sometimes there are many of these boxes, with this same name, or number; the more numerous the boxes the more likely that this was a long case, or a more complicated case, or a case involving more than one person. The breadth and depth of the case in direct correlation to the weight and the number of volumes.
In police parlance these are “dormant” cases. Technically “open” or “still under investigation” as the police like to intone when asked; but they are in a deep state of slumber, never to be awoken unless something out of the ordinary occurs. Maybe a dictated annual review, which is usually sporadicly enforced, will sometimes force a reluctant officer to pull the case from the storage room, check the final pages for any “new” information and generally meander through the boxes.
Then, under most circumstances the boxes get put back, back into the darkened rooms, a single page added indicating that there has been no change in the contained information. Some boxes may be difficult to even find.
The paper or original information in these boxes is now being lost, inexorably beaten up by time itself and inadequate physical storage. They all contain the most intimate of stories, real stories of people, their backgrounds, their lifestyles and their fates. Some of the people in these boxes have prematurely met the ultimate fate, their deaths by a variety of methods only limited by the depravity and the darkness of the human spirit. Long gone to the eyes of the original investigators, but probably not forgotten. Every old investigator cognizant of the one that got away.
They have not been solved, the killer remains free in the world, unless time and circumstances has also caught up with them as well.
If one believes that history, or that records of the past are important, or that every effort should be made to solve any murder, then you may be interested in this story. For this is a story of a largely ignored problem by the RCMP and other Municipal forces and the single attempt at a proposed solution, one which proved ultimately futile.
This is a story of a need to archive and preserve police files. It admittedly has never been fashionable to be interested in the library sciences, or the similar but more current world of digital archiving. It conjures up images of dusty books, microfiche and bespectacled introspective librarians, lonely figures confined to being the keepers of untold secrets.
This is not to say that there is not public interest in unsolved homicides; one can tune into the many Netflix docs, the CBC, read Wikipedia, or the Vancouver Sun and find stories of historical murders, served up in some form of sensationalist fashion. The RCMP post pictures of historical victims and the Coroners office publicly maps out found remains cases. Unfortunately, this is mainly public fodder and a needle in the haystack in terms of trying to solve some of these cases, designed more to entice the reader or the watcher, designed for instagram investigators, not a serious study of this dark world nor a studied attempt to make a dent in the growing pile of the unsolved.
There is an actual need for a concentrated effort to preserve, to digitize these paper files, to capture forever the information that could be lost to deterioration and neglect.
In this Province and for most other parts of Canada, there is a relatively short historical period of time which is of primary concern. This is mainly the period from 1960 to 2003, the dominant ages of the paper files in this relatively new country.
In general, around 2003 many police agencies slowly began to go to electronic formats, although it varies by jurisdiction. The paper format was gradually replaced, electronic data finally being made acceptable as a possible original document pushed by the quickly developing technical advancements.
It is somewhat ironic to understand that the paper age has an actual shelf life longer than the digital age, with experts estimating that paper, if properly preserved, has a life of about 50-100 years. (In our now digital storage era, the shelf life of electronic documents is only 10-20 years. Some think that since the newer material has been electronically filed it will last in perpetuity– a largely false belief.)
However, now the paper files are of the most immediate concern. They are reaching the end of their shelf lives, the ink is beginning to fade, the photos are beginning to deteriorate and the memories of the investigators are becoming faulty.
The numbers of unsolved homicide files that are on “paper” in this Province are somewhat daunting. In 2016, when this blogger began to look at this issue, there were 900-1300 unsolved homicides held by the RCMP in the Province of British Columbia alone. There was another 200-300 which would be the responsibility of the Municipal Forces and there is no evidence to suggest that those Municipal agencies have been any better than the RCMP in their preservation. If one draws this issue outward, on a national basis, the situation would be magnified by 10 times.
In British Columbia and in the Lower Mainland, since the birth of the Integrated Homicide and Investigation Team, they alone have generated at least another additional 300 “unsolved homicides”. To be sure, those files are being captured in an electronic format, but not a format that is in a consistent with other agencies, nor are they in a position to be integrated and compared to other similar data bases. So the problem of being able to archive and preserve all information, on a fundamental basis, is growing every year. Solvency rates are also declining– further exasperating the issue.
The police agencies are rarely asked about this archiving problem, but on that rare occasion that they are, the blame is usually placed on the constantly shifting policing priorities and jurisdictions. It simply has not been operational priority.
Even if reviewed, there is no digitization of the file, so the only electronic reference to this file may be a name or a file number. The contents are not available to investigators without fully and physically reviewing the paper file. If an investigator feels an ongoing investigation may have some relevance to a historical file, whether it be a suspect or some other circumstance, they would need to go back and physically review the entire file, maybe on just a chance of finding some opaque reference.
There is no cross-pollination of the information contained in those files, none of the more recent files can see or compare information on their files to older investigations.
The police agencies have a public relations mantra which is that no file is ever “closed” without it being solved. Technically they are right in their assertions, they don’t put a big “CH” (Concluded Here) on the file, but they are being totally misleading. They are trying to generate the impression that they are active and constructively reviewing and comparing these files on a regular basis. That is not true.
They are not digitizing these older files, and they are not actively investigating these files. The only salvation for police management is that the public simply doesn’t know; the public assume wrongly, that all police files are instantly and readily available to all homicide investigators.
There is one exception in this Province in terms of units re-investigating historical files in the RCMP. That is the Unsolved Homicide Unit of about 10-20 officers who review old files and selectively work historic files. Sounds good, but one needs to consider that each team in the group, may only take a new file every 8 months or so.
The other bit of sleight of hand is that the Unsolved Unit actually re-investigates only the “solved files”; files where a suspect has actually been already identified, but where for some reason the file was not being worked. It is hard to explain, but the fact is there are many files that have already identified suspects, but for one reason or another have been neglected. These files alone keep this unit busy and it only makes sense in terms of productivity to go for the low hanging fruit.
Now if you optimistically assume that this group does 3-5 files per year, you can easily do the math and see the finger in the dyke problem here. There is no way to catch up or even make a dent in the pile. It is not for lack of effort by this relatively small unit, it is just a matter of numbers.
The preservation of historic information is finally being recognized in various forms throughout the rest of society as various organizations are striving to cope with this growing issue.
Interestingly, some locations are actually using police inspired methods to try and solve their respective archiving problems.
At Harvard University they are in the process of trying to develop an operating system for capturing their paper and digital archives using workflow modelled after “police forensic standards”. The idea is to “create, authenticate, unimpeachable source data….” at a standard that would make the archive “suitable as evidence in a criminal trial”. Now, if capturing hundreds of homicide investigations seems to be a difficult task, Harvard is attempting to go back 375 years of history.
The problems they are encountering are similar to the police issues; files with floppy discs, zip drives, tapes, and cassettes. So they are not only capturing the information, they are also preserving the techniques that are needed to retrieve that data.
In California, in a former San Francisco Church, Brewster Kahle continues with the goal he started with in the 1990’s, which was to curate and create an “Internet Archive”. His lofty goal? To save all the world’s information.
Even to the pessimist he has been quite successful: 435 billion web pages have been preserved, 7 million books, 2.1 million audio recordings, and 1.8 million videos have been preserved and digitized, and now accessible to the Public. This archive draws 2-3 million visitors daily.
This is to say that although the archiving and digitizing of police homicide files seems both time consuming and manpower intensive, it is doable. It pales in comparison to these more ambitious projects and one would think that the goal of preserving these investigations and their contents dealing with the most heinous of crimes should be a laudable goal. But so far neither the police, or their respective government administrations, feel that is part of their duty or responsibility.
Which leads me to the more personal and subjective 2nd half of this story.
For two years, the writer of this blog, along with a couple of associates joined with the School of Criminology at Simon Fraser University, the Institute of Canadian Urban Research Studies (ICURS) and the School of Applied Science in a proposal on a non-profit basis to digitally archive these old historic homicide files.
It was supported by many people including the former RCMP head of E Division, a former VP and CIO for BC Hydro, the Dean of the school of Applied Science, and the School of Criminology at SFU.
Without going into all the details, the business plan outlined the logistics of locating files and moving them to a secure facility where the paper files would be reviewed, scanned, and converted to a digital format, one that would eventually be shared by all those participating. The reviewing would be done by PHD students in combination with the departments of Applied Science. SFU was motivated by being able to have access to a vast database for research purposes and the hands on review would give students ideas for that research.
There were many hurdles to overcome, as one would guess; security clearances, privacy issues, physical security issues, evidence chains, research controls and results, database construction, expert and standards of review, personnel, exhibit issues, and photo issues.
This is just to name a few of the problems, but over a two year period, these questions were for the most part answered and a proposal was put forward to the RCMP and the Vancouver City Police.
Initially the RCMP expressed interest, each meeting leading to a few more questions on how the operation will be housed and how it will work. Budget issues often came up (we estimated that it would take a financial commitment of 1/2 of 1% of the RCMP E Division Policing budget) The biggest concern of course, was the RCMP turning over, at least temporarily, unsolved homicide investigations to an outside party, even though they would have the appropriate security clearances. At one time they even proposed the possibility of giving up space inside their HQ at Green Timbers to get around this continuity issue.
The possible expandability of this proposal was obvious. Other Municipal agencies, other Provinces, and in a utopia, a database of all unsolved homicide files in the country. One could also bring in the solved files, as they too could have links to other investigations and be of great value.
Of course all the information would be owned by the agencies themselves, and throughout there would be oversight by those same police agencies.
“Digital 229” was the Project name and it was a non-profit enterprise. No one involved was paid during this two year period, all the extra effort was put in on a volunteer basis.
So what happened?
It was a surprise to some, but not a surprise to others who felt all along that the RCMP would have a difficult time ever climbing out of the proverbial operational “box”, the inability to go against the way it was always done.
There is no clear answer as to why the idea died. In the end, we were not given a reason which made any sense. It was un-ceremonious to say the least, as we only heard through the grapevine that negotiations had been terminated; nobody made any direct contact with any of the parties involved.
After many attempted phone connections to re-ignite the business plan, an Inspector (who had not ever been involved in the process) wrote to us and gave up an excuse over needing “sole source funding”, which had also been previously addressed, as the reason of not going forward.
Was this the real reason? We don’t think so. It was clear this officer was directed to kill the project at the direction of some higher ups and to come up with some justification for it.
At one of the original meetings with the heads of the E Division RCMP one officer said he had one question. “What if you guys uncover a number of files that need further investigation?” In other words, if this process we proposed actually assisted in solving some files or pointing to possible suspects, where would they find the resources to re-investigate them?
I’ll admit to being slightly dumbfounded, the question seemed to indicate that the police were concerned about the actual solving of homicides. This was a through the looking-glass moment, a parallel reality where the police were actually more concerned about political administrative repercussions more than the actual solving of cases.
But, so ended an extensive effort to address the unsolved homicides in this Province.
It was and is disappointing of course. What we clearly lacked was a political incentive, one fired up by government.
A few years ago in 2010, the National Inquiry into Missing and Indigenous Women was announced. Their mandate in particular was to dig into the police handling of these Indigenous files. Sources tell me that E Division quickly found a number of officers to travel the Province and review all of these files, clearly in the hope that there would be no problems uncovered.
Of course, they reviewed all these files and then wrote a report, but we have been told they were not converted to digital files.
The RCMP had no problem funding these specific reviews nor in finding the personnel to conduct the inquiries.
So while you routinely watch Netflix, or tune in to CBC True Detective, and assume the mantel of being the next Columbo, one should realize there is a far better way of actually impacting this problem. Less dramatic for sure, but truly effective.
They are currently ignoring the history and one knows what happens when you ignore history.
So the files sit in the boxes, languishing in the file rooms, all in need of a boring librarian. We can see them and touch them, they are contained, but they are hidden from view. The veil of secrecy enshrouds them, protecting them from public scrutiny.
It would seem that at the very least it is owed to the families who have been touched in the most profound way possible. We need to preserve their stories. And maybe, just maybe, give them actual hope. A concentrated and earnest academic effort is needed to make this possible.
As to the suspects, the criminals who killed and remain unaccountable–maybe it’s time for that slogan from history to be resurrected, you know the one, the one where the Mounties “always get their man”.
After all, the past causes the present and so the future.
Photo courtesy of the kirbster via Flickr Commons – Some rights reserved