Police need to end Operation Northern Spotlight

The Royal Canadian Mounted Police and local forces are putting workers at risk.

Sexual exploitation is to sex work as rape is to sex.

Remember this every time someone conflates sex work with exploitation. They’re two very different things, worlds apart, separated by ability and desire to give consent.

Sex work advocacy groups have been calling, on the behalf of those they serve, for the end of Operation Northern Spotlight, a country-wide Royal Canadian Mounted Police undertaking that seeks to save people from exploitation and human trafficking. They do this by personally investigating and interviewing people they deem to be at risk.

It sounds, on surface, like a good, caring initiative on the RCMP’s part. After all, there’s no decent person alive who doesn’t want to stop sexual exploitation.

But Operation Northern Spotlight is not the way.

Here’s why….

Police interviewed 324 carefully selected people across Canada this year, targeting those who they felt were the most vulnerable and likely to be exploited. Of those 324 they reportedly only got six to come forward.

Some might argue that helping six people escape exploitative relationships is worth the pain and traumatization imposed on as many as 318 others by police.

These women were contacted by someone who they assumed was a client and, under the impression they would be making money, agreed to a meeting. They have bills to pay, babies to feed, landlords asking for rent — so they start getting ready for work while thinking about all those mundane things that get everyone through a day of labour.

They spend an hour or so getting ready, call a cab, drive to the hotel and pay the driver with the assumption that they’re going to make that money back. Oftentimes the client will pay for transportation. Escorts and clients often prefer hotels as a safer and more secure location.

When they arrive to the hotel, instead of a client, they are confronted by police officers who identify themselves and start asking invasive questions about the worker’s age and identity. The investigators work under the assumption that the worker they’re confronting is being controlled, and even reveal that they have identifying information about the person.

Information is given about ‘exit’ strategies and supports — organizations that are available to help someone leave the sex trade — but not about how to help workers operate more safely if they choose to continue working.

Over 15 minutes of invasive, personal questions, in a hotel room, alone. No one to offer support. No lawyer to help guide workers through the questions coming at them. No time to prepare or think about the consequences of their words and actions.

The escort answers as best they can, but in their head they’re likely running up a tally of their bills and wondering how they’re going to pay them now. They’re wondering if it’s going to be much longer, because they told their babysitter they’d be home by 10 p.m. They’re wondering if they’re going to be arrested because of a breach of parole, or because they’ll miss their curfew, or because maybe they have a joint on them.

After the interviews, the sex worker likely can’t return to work that night, and make up for their cab fare to and from the interviews. They’re upset, anxious, resentful, confused and angry. They expected to make some money, and now they’re back where they started, or worse, and all that time getting ready and going out away from their families or hobbies has been wasted.

Now they feel unsafe working in hotels or taking clients in hotels. They might engage in riskier behaviour, such as meeting at the client’s house, or traveling in a car to a secluded area. They might not work until the operation is over (this year it operated from Oct. 11-15), and pass up on the ability to make money for that time.

Trust and faith in the police is likely broken for upward of 318 people now. Keep in mind, many of these workers are people who may have already have had bad run-ins with the law, and have now been deliberately tricked and cornered by the police.

The police claim their intent is to make vulnerable people feel safe, and to form a bond between police and sex workers, a goal that is completely contradictory to the experiences of those interviewed.

Heather Jarvis, program coordinator with the Safe Harbour Outreach Project [SHOP] in St. John’s, told The Telegram that SHOP “heard about this operation before the RNC and the RCMP released the information,” and that sex workers “who got caught up in the operation came to us and they were traumatized. Many predators target sex workers because they know they have an antagonistic relationship with law enforcement, and they will be unlikely to report if something goes wrong.”

This begs the question: Even if some of the workers in question are in exploitative situations, would they confide in the officers who bombarded them? If they did, this would mean their lives could be turned upside down in an instant.

Exploitation typically doesn’t manifest in a stranger holding one captive without any possessions. If an exploited person is able to meet clients in a private hotel room, they have enough autonomy to travel and are likely being exploited by someone who has control over them in another way.

Their clothes and treasured items are at that person’s place. They travel in the same circles, and have overlaps in friends. They rely on their abuser for food, or comfort, or drugs, or affection.

They may also be too frightened to leave.

Often times, victims of any type of financial exploitation and abuse are afraid to leave, as their family or friends might have been threatened. They may feel as though their abuser is protecting them from the police, such as in the case of criminalized women, or migrant workers. The abuser might have threatened to go to the police about another crime their victim may have committed. Or, they might have control over their finances, their passport, or their family.

Most people in an abusive domestic situation want to leave on their terms, have barriers to leaving, and might make multiple attempts to leave before they finally do for good. Operation Northern Spotlight asks them to make the decision on the spot.

If they’re too afraid to tell the police they’re being exploited, they now have to return home to a worse situation; the person controlling them may be wondering where the money is, and what was said to the police.

It’s a life-threatening situation that no one would ever wish to be in, but it’s the position police are putting workers in.

Police and sex workers in Canada have a very tenuous trust. While it’s not illegal to sell sex in Canada, it is illegal to buy it. That means that clients are more and more afraid of being caught in a police sting, and so are less willing to submit to screenings. Sex workers screen clients by asking for a driver’s licence or other identification, references from other escorts, or a work history, all to try and get a general feeling of how safe the client is. When clients are afraid to disclose this information, it makes things less safe for sex workers.

SHOP has stated for years that they have been working to heal the divide between police and sex workers by working directly with police and law enforcement officers. They’ve been doing this by having increased training, having contacts that were safe for sex workers to report crimes to, and by beginning the Living in Community initiative.

Living in Community seeks to bring all stakeholders to discuss policy and planning around sex work in our community. This means bringing sex workers, police, government officials, community organizations, sex worker advocacy groups, and community members together to discuss how to make the capital city safe for all residents.

This trust has now been destroyed by police actions in just one week. Over 95 percent of the carefully selected people interviewed reported no exploitation or trafficking; however, these people can be powerful allies in helping make police aware of trouble — if there’s a relationship built on trust, that is. More people can be helped, or saved, if sex workers feel they can go to the police without being hassled.

Building trust

Trust in all relationships is hard to build, and very easy to break. This is especially true if one group has power and control over another. It wasn’t long ago that Robert Pickton killed as many as 49 women — almost all of them sex workers, many of them racialized — and the police brushed off all the women who tried to tell them of this poison in the community.

Why? Because they were drug users. They weren’t human. They ran away and went missing all the time, and it was not worth police energy and efforts to try to track them down or investigate. Those 50 women, and all the women who warned police of a predator on the streets, were failed.

That trust was broken, and has been continually broken over decades. Rebuilding this trust is going to take a lot of will, and a lot of work, from police organizations across the country.

But if the police are willing to devote the time necessary to repair relationships destroyed by their repeated breaches of trust, people will be saved from exploitative situations. When that trust has a solid foundation, and police prove they mean it when they say they won’t criminalize workers, then they may find people will come to them with tips. People will come to them for help.

The next time a sexual predator is terrorizing our city, the workers could feel safe reporting it and testifying in court. The next time someone under the age of 18 is forced into the streets, they could feel safe reporting it. The next time someone is seen to be abused, they could report it.

The vulnerable sex workers targeted in Operation Northern Spotlight were chosen because of previous run-ins with the police. They’re targeted as known drug users. They’re targeted as trans or racialized individuals. They’re targeted as people working at the street level.

None of these things necessarily mean that they’re being exploited, but it does mean they have special needs and concerns that likely aren’t being met by the systems we have in Canada. They’re routinely failed by the police, by the legal system, by the health care system, by the networks we have set up for the most vulnerable populations.

People who are being exploited need to feel they can trust and approach the police. They need to feel — like all survivors of violence — that they will be believed and taken seriously. They need to know that they will not be arrested or charged with any crime they may have committed while under the coercion of another person, including drug-related crimes or breach of parole.

There is no one-week solution. Sexual exploitation and trafficking happen all the time, and police need to build trust within the community so they can handle it responsibly all the time.

Police need to respond to intel they get from community members and partners. They need to understand the dynamics of street-based sex work and provide frequent non-intrusive outreach to build relationships with vulnerable populations. They need to have dedicated liaisons that sex workers can trust, where they can report abuse — from clients, communities, or pimps — without fear.

It’s a long process. It will be hard. It will be frustrating. It will have setbacks — like this one — and it will force police to listen and learn from the communities they serve.

The Royal Newfoundland Constabulary and RCMP say they’re listening to community groups, and that they want to continue to nurture the trusting relationship they’ve developed with community groups and those they serve. However, they’re sending a mixed message.

If they were truly listening, and if they were truly considering how their actions impact sex workers, they would put Operation Northern Spotlight on hold. They would put it through a national review and meet with community groups that bring all types of experiences to the table.

Instead, they say they are listening, but will continue Operation Northern Spotlight, ignoring the voices of those with lived experience, of actual sex workers, and putting more vulnerable youth and victims at risk.

Michelle Keep is an eternal optimist who believes humanity deserves better; she hopes to have a small hand in helping improve the lives of the working poor and marginalized people. A Jill-of-all-trades, she’s written well over 2 million fictional words, runs a small publishing empire with her husband, and takes beautiful photos in her spare time.

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