Is Police Culture Set Up to Fail Canadian Sex Workers?

Sarah Berman

Sarah Berman

Even in Vancouver, where sex work is “not an enforcement priority,” sex assault charges against a high-profile anti-exploitation detective show little has changed.

It should have been a surprise, but to so many sex workers and advocates, it wasn't.

Vancouver Police Department anti-exploitation detective Jim Fisher was arrested last month on six criminal charges including sexual exploitation, sexual assault, breach of trust, and obstruction of justice. It turned out the high-ranking cop whose job it was to investigate crimes against vulnerable women and children had allegedly hurt at least two of the people he was supposed to protect. One of whom was underage.

The news came out of a police force that supposedly has some of the country's strongest guidelines around protecting sex workers and other marginalized people. Advocates say police support for sex workers across the country is inconsistent at best, as neighbouring forces take radically different approaches. The RCMP, for example, has been criticized for carrying out large-scale stings to rescue women from the industry.

Vancouver was supposed to be different from the rest, Brenna Bezanson of PACE Society told VICE. Despite Stephen Harper-era laws that criminalize the sex trade, passed in 2014, the VPD issued its own directive not to target, harass, arrest, or intimidate sex workers. The guidelines say sex work between consenting adults "is not an enforcement priority," meaning that sex workers should be able to report violence and other crimes against them without fear of being charged themselves.

"Every bit of policy exists to do the right thing," Lorimer Shenher, former Vancouver detective and author of That Lonely Section of Hell, told VICE. Shenher, whose memoir recalls the initial missing women investigation that led to Robert Picton's murder trial, left the force four years ago and then transitioned genders in 2015. He says it's police culture itself that repeatedly fails sex workers on even the most well-intentioned forces.

"Institutionally the police are coming at it from a paternalistic place," he told VICE. "The notion of protection can be so simplistic, they don't understand how they're being perceived by sex workers—that their presence completely changes that space."

Read More: How Canada's Immigration Laws Make Migrant Sex Workers' Jobs More Dangerous

A lot has changed since Shenher's early days on the force, when he says sex workers were openly referred to as "whores." It was BC's commission on missing and murdered Indigenous women that first pushed Vancouver police to undertake some serious efforts to build trust with sex workers. Today there's a VPD liaison for sex workers to call, and a "Sisterwatch" program with both women's advocates and cops sharing a mission to protect Downtown Eastside women. (One of the other key recommendations, to create a cross-regional police force in BC's lower mainland, has yet to be implemented.)

"She's fantastic, and many of the sex workers in the city trust her," Bezanson said of VPD sex industry liaison Linda Malcolm. "That's a big thing, holding that trust."

But even with a growing number of women officers—at least one that practicing sex workers trust—there's still ample opportunity for police to abuse power, say Bezanson and Shenher.

Shenher says police forces are spaces where top ranking members like Fisher see little to no supervision, leaving it up to close colleagues and subordinates to report and investigate abuse. "I spoke about this in my book, a dynamic that I see happening. When people are in policing for a long period of time, there does start to be a sense of entitlement—especially in officers who are good at what they're doing," Shenher told VICE.

"They don't see results in the justice system that they'd like to see," he said, "they think they're special, and maybe above some of the codes of conduct that exist on the force."

Bezanson says that just having laws against sex work on the books makes industry women easy prey for any predators, including the ones that work for police. That police command structure allows for power-seekers and predator-types to work their way up to seemingly untouchable positions only makes it worse: "The opportunity for corruption when subordinates are the only ones who are going to be checking in on you is so obvious," she told VICE. "Any other industry wouldn't even question that."

How to change that culture? Shenher says he'd like to see a higher proportion of women doing police work and leading high-profile anti-exploitation units, but cautions that just a few token women won't be enough. "There's always that line that women have to walk, where they don't want to be seen as overly sensitive to women's issues," Shenher told VICE. "They're trying to survive, and it's career suicide to speak up too much for women."

Culture change is happening, but it's slow, and even women police aren't immune from it. "We've seen a few different cases in which police can't even protect their own officers from assault," Bezanson told VICE. A class action case will compensate an estimated 14,000 former RCMP employees for systemic gender discrimination later this year.

For Bezanson, that's another sign of a wider culture that needs to change if it's going to help people most prone to violence.

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