A Western University professor says the recent Toronto serial killings point to systemic issues with the Canadian police forces.
On Jan. 18, Bruce McArthur was arrested for a string of murders that targeted men in Toronto’s Gay Village over the last eight years. As of right now, McArthur is charged with five counts of first-degree murder dating back to 2010.
While the case is shocking to most, it didn’t come as a surprise to Michael Arntfield, a leading criminologist and professor at Western.
Arntfield is the founder of Western’s Cold Case Society, a collective of students that use emerging investigative practices to analyze evidence from unsolved homicide cases. Relying on algorithms, analysis and critical interpretations of data, the Cold Case Society finds the patterns in homicide cases that may go undetected by police departments.
Students from Arntfield’s Cold Case Society first brought the Toronto murders to his attention three years ago. While the society never directly investigated the case, the students noticed a pattern in the string of disappearances in Toronto's Gay Village.
“Students approached me who ... explained that there was a series of suspicious disappearances clustering around long weekends or events in Toronto,” Arntfield said. “These were confirmed disappearances that the students found in records online, so they knew that something was going on and that no one was acknowledging it.”
While the Cold Case Society considered investigating further, Artnfield said there wasn’t sufficient data available three years ago.
“Two of the five confirmed victims so far are names that were brought to me by students three years ago, so they were right,” Arntfield said.
Many critics are scrutinizing the Toronto Police Service, suggesting that the failure to investigate sooner is because the victims are members of the LGBTQ+ community. However, Arntfield argued that the police’s inability to recognize that the disappearances were connected has nothing to do with sexuality or discrimination.
“This is a police department that has a black chief, and a sufficient number of LGBTQ+ members, who even have their own union,” he says. “So this is a very diverse force, and to suggest that there’s a systemic conspiracy to suppress these cases is wrong.”
Arntfield, who served as a police officer for 15 years before becoming a professor, explained that the real problem with Toronto’s police department is common with North American law enforcement. Simply put, police departments are often disorganized, apathetic and taught outdated investigative practices.
“This case is more broadly representative of the fact that policing is broken. That’s the subtext — not the fact that the victims are homosexuals or members of the LGBTQ+ community,” he states. “Serial killers are ... enabled and allowed to operate because of the limitations of the current system.”
According to Arntfield, the Cold Case Society’s success is a result of the fact that it doesn’t face the same limitations that police departments often do.
For example, he said while Canadian police departments are still being taught interrogation techniques developed in the 1940s, the Cold Case Society uses emerging technologies. One of these technologies is the Murder Accountability Project, the world's largest homicide database, which is co-administered by Arntfield himself. MAP groups murders together based on factors like time and place to make it easier for the Cold Case Society to spot patterns in homicides.
Beyond having more access to technology, Arntfield said his students are eager, and they're encouraged to take their time analyzing data.
“In some cases, it’s a matter of resources, and in other cases, it’s a case of apathy, which is what the allegations are right now in Toronto," Arntfield said. "Apathy is why Bruce McArthur was able to operate for at least 10 years, probably closer to 30 years in my estimation.”