It's a Tuesday afternoon and Constable Linda Malcolm is patrolling the streets of the Downtown Eastside in street clothes. Today it's a Beatles T-shirt and beige pants.
A police uniform, says the sex industry liaison officer for the Vancouver Police Department, is a huge barrier to building relationships with people down here. Her badge and gun are discreetly concealed. On the streets, Constable Malcolm is regularly approached by women who know her simply as Linda, who hug her before launching into a litany of woes and grievances.
One, whose face is badly disfigured, speaks urgently in the breathless staccato of the drug-addicted, telling the officer about being hauled in by police. Constable Malcolm listens carefully, offering assistance - before the woman runs off, propelled by the force of what seems like the unrelenting daily drama of life here.
"She was savagely gang-raped," the officer says afterwards. "Caught up in a dispute between two sets of drug dealers. They cut her with a knife, they disfigured her."
Constable Malcolm, 51, has become something of a legend on the streets of the Downtown Eastside - the cop more likely to bake cookies for women than bust them. She often works on her days off, takes bad-date calls in the middle of the night from the WISH Mobile Access Van that patrols the streets, buys countless lunches and dinners for sex workers out of her own pocket. She makes crafts for them, drives them to a detoxification clinic, takes them on ferries to rehab, accompanies women going to court against predators, and finds ones who have dropped out of sight.
Before taking on the job as sex industry liaison officer nearly two years ago, Constable Malcolm sat on the Missing Women Task Force, during the dark time leading up to the arrest and conviction of Robert Pickton for the serial murders of six women and charges relating to an additional 20 counts. She credits that experience with opening her eyes.
"I really didn't have an appreciation or understanding of the depth of despair that surrounds a number of the folks down here through marginalization, poverty, drug addiction, lack of housing," she says. "On top of it, there are predators out here who are harming men, women, transgendered folks."
A non-smoker, Constable Malcolm - who has also done stints with the railroad police and as a motorcycle officer - usually keeps packs of cigarettes in her pockets. "Cigarettes are a currency down here. It opens conversations. It solidifies promises," she says. On this Tuesday, she has forgotten her stash of cigarettes in her car, when another woman runs up to her.
Tara Axl-Rose, who legally changed her last name in a youthful act of tribute to the lead singer of Guns N' Roses, wants a smoke. Constable Malcolm pops into a local shop to buy a pack, while Ms. Axl-Rose goes into the adjacent methadone pharmacy for a free coffee. The woman, who has hepatitis C and HIV, shakes and rocks from foot to foot. She says she feels safe talking to Constable Malcolm.
"Yeah, 'cause she's, like, one of us, you know?" she says. "Some of the other cops are intimidating. Not all, but I think the majority of them just look on us as being an addict."
Moments later, Constable Malcolm is wrapped in another hug from Charlotte Harper, a deaf woman in the sex trade. Across the street, a young woman in a black mini-dress stands on the corner, working. Constable Malcolm knows her but won't approach her, always leaving it up to women to make the first overture. "Down here, if the wrong person sees them talking to a police officer, they could end up suffering a beating," she says. "It's best to play it safe."
Kerry Porth, the executive director of PACE - a group that provides support services to women working in prostitution - credits Constable Malcolm for countless acts that have discouraged predators and thawed antipathy between sex workers and police. "The more police officers get to know everybody in this community - the safer everybody is," she says.
Constable Malcolm has not arrested any of the women she encounters on the streets. She sees her role more as a protector and problem-solver, as liaison between the women and police, frontline workers, legal advocates, doctors and tenants groups. But there are times when she still has to enforce the law.
"One woman had a Canada-wide warrant against her for a serious offence," Constable Malcolm says. "We were able to literally walk her through the whole process and Pivot [legal society]helped her out with legal counsel. It worked out well for her."
Jo Ann Morin, a 53-year-old Métis woman, recently left prostitution after 30 years in the sex trade. "I met Linda, because I thought I had a warrant out on me," she says. "I'd never met a cop before that you could sit down and talk to and not worry about them taking you in if you did have a warrant. I pretty much thought most cops were assholes."
On a Thursday evening, Constable Malcolm races into the Firehall Arts Centre, carrying a large box filled with flowers. The show is about to start - and she's been in court all day. But she still found time to pick up four bouquets of long-stemmed roses.
They are gifts for four women who work the streets and are about to perform stand-up comedy routines. It's a joint outreach program between PACE and Stand Up for Mental Health - a group that teaches people with mental illness to use stand-up comedy as a form of therapy. The women have been receiving comedy coaching and rehearsing for months, and tonight is their first performance before a paying audience.
Everyone is racked with stage fright, compounded by a darker fear. One of the women slated to perform hasn't been seen or heard from in days. She missed the last rehearsal. When a woman goes missing in the Downtown Eastside, it's still cause for widespread worry. With minutes ticking down to curtain, the missing woman arrives. The relief is palpable.
Constable Malcolm takes her seat. She has no children of her own, but for the next hour, as the four women make comedy out of the painful stories of their lives, she laughs, applauds and beams like a nervous mother watching her children in a high-school play.
"They're all so brave," she says. "I'm in awe of them."
Special to The Globe and Mail