Cops consider new 'sex work' approach

Advocate says proposed guidelines long overdue

Mona Woodward is pleased the Vancouver Police Department has drafted guidelines on how to carry out enforcement related to the sex trade.

The executive director of the Aboriginal Front Door Society just wishes they'd existed sooner. "You would think that it would already be in place and that people would already know to treat anybody with due dignity and respect," Woodward said. "But it is blatantly clear that with the VPD that that's been an issue. It came up within the [Missing Women Commission of] Inquiry and it's just out there in the public eye."

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The Vancouver Police Board is to discuss the prospective guidelines Wednesday. "Sex work involving consenting adults is not an enforcement priority for the VPD," the administrative report states. It adds positive relationships could see sex workers more likely to call police when they are in trouble or when they are aware of human trafficking and involvement of gangs or youth in the sex trade. Woodward echoes the need for change. "[Sex workers] have to be able to communicate and not be intimidated and frightened of the police to report stuff," she said. "Because right now it's like 'Why the hell should we report, nobody f***ing listens to us.'"

If the prospective guidelines are approved, police would consider "alternative measures and assistance with enforcement a last resort" with nuisance-related complaints about survival sex workers. The report calls for immediate attention to sex workers' allegations. "When a sex worker speaks to a VPD officer or attends a police station in person alleging violence, an officer should be assigned to investigate. The victim should not be directed to return at another time, or to complete a written statement and return it later," the report states.

Police won't comment on the report until Wednesday to clarify how the guidelines differ from current practice. "Enforcement action will be taken in situations deemed 'high risk' due to the involvement of sexually exploited children/youth, gangs/organized crime, exploitation, sexual abuse, violence and human trafficking," the report adds.

Woodward called the timing of discussion around the guidelines "convenient" since the only lawyer representing the aboriginal community quit the missing women inquiry earlier this month; many of serial killer Robert Pickton's victims were aboriginal sex trade workers.

But Kate Gibson, executive director of WISH, which runs a nightly drop-in centre for women sex workers and a van that visits outdoor sex workers from 10 p.m. to 6 a.m., noted Vancouver police have been working to better respect sex workers' safety for years.

Gibson believes the guidelines are a good step in the right direction and says they need to go further. "Say someone is attacked or assaulted while they're working, the most important thing is assisting them, not enforcing something to do with a warrant," Gibson added. "That is really essential to making men and women know that they can go to police and say this is what just happened to me and that is the priority, not whether or not they have some other issues going on."

WISH was one of five sex worker-serving agencies that assisted with the report. The missing women inquiry is to resume April 2. Twitter: @Cheryl_Rossi

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