What did police learn from the Russell Williams investigation?

Nothing they can tell the public, according to a freedom of information request that took three years to process
Col. Russell Williams is shown in this image from video provided by Ontario Provincial Court, from his interrogation by police shown Wednesday, Oct. 20, 2010 in a Belleville, Ont. courtroom. Williams told police that while he did ask himself why he raped and killed women, he could never come up with an answer and he was “pretty sure the answers don’t matter.” (AP Photo/The Canadian Press)
Photo by Nathan Rochford
Photo by Nathan Rochford

When he was sentenced to life in prison, ex-colonel Russell Williams sat in a Belleville, Ont., courtroom—head down, eyes on the floor—as prosecutors took turns reading from an “agreed statement of facts” that was so appalling, it filled 96 pages (single-spaced). Fittingly enough, the final five words were reserved for the dogged investigators who brought the killer down: “They did an outstanding job.”

As soon as the hearing ended on Oct. 21, 2010, the Ontario Provincial Police commissioner and Belleville’s police chief heaped even more praise on investigators, saying in a joint press release that “those involved can take great pride in knowing that they have contributed greatly toward public and community safety.” In the same release, however, Chris Lewis and Cory McMullan also promised to conduct a “debriefing and a review” aimed at identifying any lessons learned. “We want the victims of all these horrific crimes, the families of the deceased victims, and the general public to know that every single facet of this investigation either has been, or will be, reviewed,” they vowed. “Any lessons learned, either the many things we did incredibly well or any things that, in hindsight, we might have done better, will result in improvements to future investigations.”

So what did police learn from their pursuit of serial murderer Russell Williams? They won’t say.

Three years after Maclean’s filed a freedom of information (FOI) request seeking the results of that internal police review, Ontario’s ministry of community safety has released an eight-page, heavily censored executive summary that reveals barely any details about the debrief—good, bad or otherwise. Ironically enough, one of the only sections that isn’t redacted is a recommendation related to freedom of information laws. “The FOI protocol needs to be looked at to see if it is managed as efficiently as it could be,” the document reads. “A five-dollar request encapsulates a lot of time retrieving and vetting information, which sometimes is not released to the requester.”

Despite all the blank pages, other records finally disclosed in response to Maclean’s FOI request do confirm—for the first time—that the OPP updated its policies regarding public-safety warnings after Williams was captured. Whether authorities should have done more to alert residents to a potential predator remains a troubling question, and is now at the heart of a multi-million-dollar lawsuit filed by one of the Williams’s sexual assault victims.

“The decision as to what information to release to the media and public in any investigation, including public safety warnings, is made on a case-by-case basis, according to Standard Operating Procedures (SOP),” reads one memo prepared for OPP brass on April 19, 2011, two months after the debrief was conducted. “The OPP regularly updates SOP as part of its practice of ongoing evaluation. It has recently done so regarding public safety warnings.”

Williams committed his first home-invasion sexual assault in September 2009, ambushing a young mother in Tweed, Ont., as her baby daughter slept in a nearby room. At the time, provincial police had no reason to suspect their perpetrator was the decorated commander of CFB Trenton, Canada’s largest and busiest air force base. But for reasons that still aren’t clear, the OPP decided not to publicize the break-in assault until two weeks later—when a second woman in the neighbourhood, Laurie Massicotte, was attacked inside her house. Only then did police issue a press release, warning local residents. (Massicotte is the victim now suing the Ontario government, alleging the OPP left women “vulnerable to further sexual assaults” by “choosing not to warn potential victims.” Ontario is defending the lawsuit, denying “it owed a duty to warn in the circumstances of this case.”)

Two months after Massicotte was targeted, police were dispatched to a gruesome homicide in Brighton, Ont., a one-hour drive from Tweed. Again, police had no reason—yet—to connect the slaying of Cpl. Marie-France Comeau to her Trenton commander or the Tweed assaults, but the initial OPP press release seemed to contradict the violent, bloody crime scene inside her house. “There are presently no issues with regards to public safety,” the release said.

Exactly how the OPP updated its policies regarding public-safety warnings is not clear. The force doesn’t disclose its standard operating procedures, and when Maclean’s sent a list of follow-up questions to both the OPP and the Belleville Police Service, neither responded (not even to confirm receipt of the questions).

Curt T. Griffiths, a criminologist and coordinator of the police studies program at Simon Fraser University, says he is puzzled by the OPP’s strategy. In so many ways, the Williams case was an investigative triumph, a prime example of how various agencies can work together to solve a major, multi-jurisdictional crime; the interrogation alone—the climactic police interview that ended with Williams’s stunning confession—was nothing short of masterful. (The interrogator, Det.-Sgt. Jim Smyth, was among nearly three dozen officers honoured with “accolade awards” for their work on the file.) But by refusing to reveal the few things that could have been done better, Griffiths says, the OPP is only fuelling unnecessary speculation.

“We know that in any investigation, even if it turns out well in the end, there are all kinds of dynamics going on, and the public needs to be reassured that the organization has the capacity for self-examination other than these platitudes they put out there,” he says. “You start suspecting things: ‘Is there something here we should know about?’”

Here’s what we now know, according to the newly released documents: On the morning of Feb. 9, 2011—almost a year to the day after the disgraced colonel admitted the truth about his depraved double life—40 people, mostly police officers, gathered in the conference room of a Belleville hotel for an “investigation debrief” on Project Hatfield (the case file’s official name). In yet another ironic twist, Williams himself attended the same Ramada Inn the morning after he committed his first sexual assault—to accept a donation from, of all people, a group of police officers who had raised money for a charity that helps wounded soldiers.

Items on the debrief agenda included “Assumptions,” “Let’s remember,” “Creating opportunities for growth” and “Our legacy.” Det.-Insp. Chris Nicholas, the senior OPP officer who led the task force, delivered the opening remarks, saying they were gathered that day “in honour of victims and survivors.” His notes, also partially released as part of the FOI request, offer small glimpses of the discussion—“Don’t lean on one person too much,” “spread workload,” “Proud moment that/when WILLIAMS CAUGHT; thanks to all involved”—but the eight-page executive summary is almost completely censored.

According to the ministry, the public is not allowed to see the summary because the contents are too sensitive for release under various sections of the Freedom of Information and Protection of Privacy Act. The ministry can refuse to disclose a record, for example, if it might reveal investigative techniques, facilitate the commission of an unlawful act, hamper the control of crime, or endanger the security of a building.

As permitted under the Act, Maclean’s is filing an appeal with Ontario’s information and privacy commissioner.

“I’ve always had, in my working life around policing, really serious concerns about the things that can be refused for disclosure,” says Paul McKenna, the former deputy director of the Ontario Provincial Police Academy and now a lecturer at Dalhousie University. “They take too much advantage of the provisions in the freedom of information legislation, both in Ontario and other jurisdictions, that allow them to refuse to disclose. I would counsel them to be a little bit more open and share a bit more detail. I don’t see the value of them being able to hold their cards so close to their chest.”

If anything, McKenna says, the lack of disclosure smacks of damage control. “I think they should be praised for having these intensive, facilitated sessions where they look at what they did—good, bad and ugly,” he says. “But I think there could be more shared that would reveal how competent they are and that they are steering themselves to follow a continuous improvement model. That is exactly why these lessons learned are done. ‘What did we not do sufficiently? How can we improve things?’ ”

The debrief’s executive summary was completed on March 28, 2011 and distributed to all who attended. Over the next three weeks, the OPP’s corporate communications bureau prepared another document almost as long as the executive summary, outlining “key messages” for senior officers to use “when speaking to the public or the media”—including reporters who may “request an update or the outcome” of the review that was promised, via press release, the same day Williams was sent to prison.

“The partnership between the OPP, Belleville Police Service, Ottawa Police Service, and Canadian Forces National Investigative [sic] Service (CFNIS) created a cohesive team and allowed for the seamless sharing of information, the sharing of resources, and the coordination of the investigation,” the document reads. “This success of the investigation was due to the dedication of police officers, skilled interviewers and investigators, excellent training and good old-fashioned police work.”

It is this document that confirms, for the first time, that the OPP updated its standard operating procedures surrounding public-safety warnings. But as for specific issues addressed during the debrief, the “discussions were operational in nature” and cannot be revealed: “It is inappropriate to speculate on why public safety warnings were issued, or were not issued, during past investigations since these matters may be before the courts or such discussion about standard operating procedures would have a negative impact on the integrity of the OPP’s operations.”

The document—labeled as “Internal use only-Not for public/media distribution”—also discusses one of the most heartbreaking aspects of the case: that a Belleville police officer actually knocked on the door of Williams’s second murder victim, Jessica Lloyd, the night she was abducted. Her killer was hiding in the backyard at the time, waiting to pounce.

As previously reported, the officer noticed a suspicious SUV parked at the edge of Lloyd’s property on the evening of Jan. 28, 2010, and stopped to investigate. Nobody answered the door because Lloyd wasn’t home yet, so the officer jotted down a description of the SUV—but not the licence plate—and drove away.

The next morning, when Lloyd was reported missing, a licence plate search would have certainly led police to Williams’s Tweed cottage, where his hostage was still alive. (Repeatedly raped and tortured, Lloyd was not killed until after 8 p.m.) Instead, investigators were left with little more than a set of tire tracks; Williams would not become a suspect for another week, when a RIDE-style police checkpoint revealed the tires on his Nissan Pathfinder matched the treads left behind on Lloyd’s property.

By all accounts, the unnamed officer who knocked on Lloyd’s door is a respected, competent cop who remains devastated that, in hindsight, she may have been able to save a life. (It wasn’t until after Lloyd vanished that a joint police task force was formed, and a potential link was made between her disappearance, the two Tweed assaults, and Comeau’s murder in Brighton.)

“The officer should be commended for her keen power of observations, as opposed to being cast as a villain by certain media,” says the “key messages” document. “Her observations allowed investigators to narrow the search for a suspect vehicle. After noticing an unusual vehicle in a field adjacent to Lloyd’s home, she knocked on the door. There was no answer, but she noted the house was secure and also noted a description of the vehicle. After Jessica was reported missing, this played a key role in helping investigators narrow down the possible list of suspect vehicles, in combination with tire tracks left at the scene.

“Speculation about ‘what if’ serves no useful purpose,” the document continues, “and cannot alter any of the facts of the crimes that occurred.”

That the Belleville officer was suspicious enough to knock on Lloyd’s door—but not to write down the licence plate of the SUV that sparked her initial suspicion—has triggered inevitable questions about whether police forces should adopt strict policies that require officers to record the plates of any suspicious vehicle they encounter. In 2012, Belleville Chief Cory McMullan told The Toronto Star she opposed such a blanket policy, saying officers “must be given some flexibility and discretion to investigate individual situations based on the information that they have at the time.”

McKenna, the Dalhousie professor, agrees. “You cannot write policy to remedy every error because then there will just be a new error that will come up and you weigh down your officers with policies,” he says. “Not noting the licence plate was a tragic oversight, but not a culpable oversight.”

What’s much more frustrating, McKenna says, is that police won’t reveal any specific lessons from the Williams probe. “Every public organization now says they are transparent, but this is not transparent,” he says. “This is translucent. I think the public interest would dictate that they substantially increase what they actually share with us. It’s almost like a conditioned response that has not evolved substantially in policing. When it comes to actually sharing detail and substance, they’re still looking for the protections of the FOI legislation.”

It’s especially frustrating, Curt Griffiths says, because the police themselves publicly promised to review every aspect of the investigation—and now they’re not telling the public what they learned. In direct contrast, the Vancouver Police conducted an exhaustive, public review into their handling of serial killer Robert Picton’s case. “That was no-holds barred,” Griffiths says. “The chief at the time said: ‘I want you to do a complete internal organizational review of what went on in terms of VPD’s role in the Picton case—good, bad, ugly—and put it out there.’ I don’t think it’s made Vancouver a less effective police force. In fact, I think it’s strengthened them as an organization that they were prepared to have the lessons learned, and make it public, rather than saying: ‘Well, we’ve learned some lessons from Picton but we’re not going to tell you what they are.’ ”