Sex-worker advocates are calling on police in British Columbia to stop participating in an operation that sees officers pose as prospective clients and arrange dates in efforts to reach sex workers who may be in danger.
According to the Vancouver-based Pivot Legal Society, officers working Operation Northern Spotlight typically pose as johns and arrange meetings with sex-trade workers through websites such as Craigslist and Backpage.
They then show up at the agreed-upon location – typically a hotel – to ask the sex worker if he or she is working under coercion, a victim of human trafficking or in any other sort of danger.
Operation Northern Spotlight began with two officers in Ontario in 2014 and, by 2016, grew to involve 53 police partners in nine provinces. An operation last October resulted in 16 people across Canada being removed from "exploitative situations," according to RCMP. Thirty-two people were charged with 78 offences, including child luring and human trafficking.
But the advocates – which include activists, academics and support organizations – call the operation deceptive, and say it erodes the already precarious relationship between law enforcement and the sex-work community. As well, some sex workers who have been targeted in these operations have described the events as frightening and traumatic.
"Police, perplexingly, think that this is a trust-building exercise," said Alison Clancey, executive director of SWAN Vancouver Society, an organization that supports migrant and immigrant women in the sex trade.
"It's using deception and manipulation to get women to come to hotel rooms, and for some reason, they think sex workers will be grateful. But that's just not the case."SWAN Vancouver Society is among 24 signatories of an open letter sent to B.C. RCMP on Thursday. Police did not respond to a request for comment from The Globe and Mail.
Brenda Belak, a sex-work campaign lawyer with Pivot, said a couple of women who were targeted during Operation Northern Spotlight in Ontario reached out to her organization for advice.
One of these women told of a day during the October operation when police posed as a client, arranged a meeting and showed up at the hotel they agreed upon. There, the officers inquired whether she was underage or being coerced; she said no to both.
The woman left the hotel and got into a car being driven by an acquaintance. A couple of blocks from the hotel, police pulled the car over.
"They used the contact as a reason to stop her and conduct what we believe is an illegal search of the car," Ms. Belak said.
Officers found marijuana in the car and both the woman and the driver were charged with possession for the purposes of trafficking. The driver was given a no-contact order, which meant that, at midnight, the woman had no way to get home from the police station – a two-hour drive away. Her charges were eventually dropped, Ms. Belak said.
"This kind of action by police absolutely destroys any hope of relationship building between police and sex workers," she said. "Since sex workers are often targeted by predators who know they won't go to police, it just builds and creates a vicious cycle."
The open letter says Operation Northern Spotlight is incompatible with recommendations in Forsaken: The Report of the Missing Women Commission of Inquiry, which said police should follow the lead of Vancouver police. The VPD's policy on sex-work enforcement prioritizes high-risk safety concerns and emphasizes relationship building.
Both Ms. Clancey and Ms. Belak say building relationships with sex workers is a more thoughtful and effective way of identifying those who may be in trouble. Support organizations are also well-positioned to be contact points.
"Support organizations that are trusted in the community, that have long-standing relationships with [sex workers] are genuinely interested in their well-being and their safety," Ms. Belak said. "Those people can also understand the very complex situations that people working under coercion often find themselves in."