IHIT marks 15 years of solving B.C.’s worst crimes
Since 2003, the Integrated Homicide Investigation Team has crossed the yellow tape barricading B.C.’s worst crimes hundreds of times, led by its motto of “justice for those who have died unfairly.”
Set up after police failed for so long to realize that serial killer Robert Pickton was at work, Canada’s largest homicide unit marks its 15th anniversary on Friday. Leaders of the team, known most commonly as IHIT, painted a picture of the daily operations of their 110-member team to mark the date. Specific techniques, however, were not discussed — to do so could forewarn those who kill.
IHIT investigates homicides, suspicious deaths, and the disappearance of people at high risk of being killed, in 28 RCMP jurisdictions and four municipal police jurisdictions as far away as Sechelt, Pemberton and Boston Bar. Since 2003, it has grown to 72 officers from the RCMP and eight municipal officers from Port Moody, New Westminster, West Vancouver and Abbotsford. There are 30 civilian members in various roles — transcribing witness statements, handling administrative matters and forming a unit involved in analysis and disclosing information to defence lawyers.
Supt. Donna Richardson became the officer in charge in 2016 after leaving an RCMP major crimes unit where she led specialty teams.
Functionally, IHIT has two arms: Acting Insp. Terry Senghera is the operations officer, running seven investigative units, while Insp. Dave Chauhan is the operations support officer, overseeing the unsolved-homicide, file co-ordination, and disclosure units.
IHIT investigators are recruited from police detachments and departments within its jurisdiction. Also, some officers are seconded to IHIT on six-month rotations for training.
Chauhan said investigators must have strong policing and investigational backgrounds. A university education isn’t required, but they need to be good at communicating and must have an eye for detail when at a crime scene. Many come from serious-crime units.
Richardson said there are a lot of strong, highly-motivated personalities on the team.
“They want to do (their) best to bring closure to these files,” she said. “Sometimes one of our greatest tasks is kind of reining in our people.”
IHIT members, in addition to all their earlier police training, get lessons in drafting various types of warrants and production orders to seize evidence, in managing huge numbers of documents and hundreds of audio and video files, and in probing cybercrime. They take courses on interviewing, wire tapping, surveillance and leadership.
Senghera said IHIT’s call to action — a report of a homicide in its jurisdiction — usually comes just as his head hits the pillow after a long day’s work. He assembles a team that splits — some members go to the local police headquarters, others to where the crime took place. As IHIT takes over, investigators get a briefing from local officers that responded and secured the scene.
If a suspect is already under arrest — something that is most likely in cases of domestic violence — Chauhan calls in his specialist interviewing team. Its goal is to get a statement about what happened — after giving the legal caution that a suspect has the right to remain silent.
When there is no suspect, much more work must be done.
Investigators obtain search warrants, gather perishable evidence and surveillance video, and draft production orders to seize cellphones and other digital devices. They will call for police forensic identification specialists to look for clues and for a coroner.
That first shift of an investigation can last 20 hours, Senghera said.
Evidence such as biological and fibre samples are shipped to three Canadian labs for analysis. Results can take time — there is usually a backlog.
IHIT also works with canine units and cadaver dogs, labs that analyze blood splatter and ballistics evidence, the highly regarded Vancouver police firearms section (Vancouver does not use IHIT, instead investigating city homicides with its own team), and Crown prosecutors.
When IHIT is faced with something novel, it will seek out experts across the globe. Investigators have worked with anthropology students, insect experts and dental experts from local universities. Often, those who are new to homicide investigation — “our millennials” as Richardson calls them — bring outside-the-box approaches to solving a problem.
“Being open to new ideas is something that is really important to us,” she added.
All of this work is demanding and at times frustrating, particularly when IHIT falls short of meeting Crown prosecutor’s charge approval threshold of “a substantial likelihood of conviction,” the investigators said.
They said that the importance of tips from the public in solving cases can’t be overstated.
“I consider (the) public to be our eyes and ears out there,” Chauhan said. “You have a limited number of police officers out there but there’s hundreds and thousands of people out there … and we can’t be in every place at every time.”
Tips come anonymously through CrimeStoppers, through phone calls to police, and as information from other police agencies. Even if tipsters can’t provide names, descriptions, photos or video of killers and their vehicles, “any information is good information,” Richardson said.
As media officer, Cpl. Frank Jang is the public face of IHIT, providing information to the public and appealing for tips.
After IHIT is called about a homicide, Jang is called in and is briefed in person or over the phone. He talks with IHIT’s media strategist and investigators to confirm the facts and to decide what can be made public, then issues a news release and holds a news conference.
Jang aims to inform the public within hours of IHIT taking a case, which is why “you often see me at 10 a.m. or 10 p.m,” he said. “It’s big news in any community when there’s a murder.”
In 2017, IHIT launched 52 investigations, after 43 in 2016. Since 2003, its clearance rate — or proportion of crimes solved — has averaged 60 per cent annually, according to the investigators. They are still pursuing 200 unsolved cases.
Senghera said clearing a suspect who is innocent is considered a success, though a truly successful IHIT file leads to charges and prosecution.
Telling a family that someone has been charged is a rewarding part of the job, he said. Informing a family about a death is one of the hardest.
“You have to remember that when an IHIT investigator knocks on a family’s door, it’s not to give good news to the family,” Richardson said. “It is to deliver, probably, the worst news that family is ever going to receive — the news that one of their loved ones has been murdered and that person is never coming home again.”
Usually, two IHIT officers will visit the family while victim-support personnel wait nearby to take over. Compassion is an “understatement” for what investigators must show when helping a family in fresh grief, Richardson said.
“I always tell people, it doesn’t matter what the (victim’s) background is … the parents always see them as like a three-year-old, four-year-old,” added Senghera. “They always see them as the young kid that always depended on them.”
Over the next months or years, IHIT and victim-support services work with the family to navigate the court process together. They’ll help prepare a victim-impact statement so that the family’s voices are heard in court during sentencing, Chauhan said.
Years after the investigation is over, families will call or send cards to investigators to say thank you. Some just want to talk, Senghera said.
A case can stay with an IHIT member for a long time.
“You dream about some of it,” Senghera said. “You never forget about it.”
“People normally say leave your work at work, but in our profession you take your work with you at home because it totally consumes you,” added Chauhan.
For this reason, health and wellness at IHIT is a priority. Investigators get an annual checkup by a psychologist and have access to an employee-assistance program 24/7 by phone.
IHIT holds meetings and training sessions, and brings in specialists to address concerns that arise from the work. Members form bonds at family barbecues, hockey games and in the gym at headquarters.
After a particularly traumatic case, IHIT holds a “critical incident debrief” with a psychologist to help investigators through their experience.
“Law enforcement and first responders — I think we’re getting better at dealing with the stressors of work and we’re recognizing things like operational stress injuries,” Richardson said.
She recalled attending one homicide scene early in her career where the victim was a child.
“That file, I think, will probably stay with me forever,” she said.
“So it’s not lost on me — and it’s not lost on Dave and Terry — that we, every day, send our folks out to these types of tragic incidents and we expect them to deal with this on a daily basis.”
Note: Lower Mainland homicide team names new officer-in-charge – June 2019
Supt. Dave Chauhan will head up the homicide team beginning Thursday, replacing outgoing Supt. Donna Richardson who is retiring.
New head of IHIT promises action on high-priority murder cases – Posted July 25, 2019 5:50 am
The new head of the Integrated Homicide Investigation Team (IHIT) is promising action on several high-profile murder cases that remain unsolved.
In an interview with Global News, IHIT officer-in-charge Supt. Dave Chauhan said he is confident many cases will be broken soon after people who know something come forward to police.
“Some people are reluctant to just come forward for the fear that they may get identified in the public,” said Chauhan, who officially took on his new role on June 27.
One of the cases Chauhan is confident investigators will find an answer to is the death of Cloverdale hockey coach and dad Paul Bennett.
Bennett was leaving home on the evening of June 23, 2018, when he was shot multiple times, later dying of his injuries in hospital.