Open letter decries police posing as sex-worker clients in "repressive" Operation Northern Spotlight

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      July 6, 2017

      To: RCMP "E" Division, B.C. Association of Chiefs of Police, municipal police agencies, director of policing services

      Dear Madam and Sirs: Re: call for non-participation in Operation Northern Spotlight in British Columbia

      We, the undersigned, are individuals and organizations deeply committed to the health, safety, and human rights of women, men, and trans* persons involved in the sex industry. As such, we are concerned about the safety and well-being of those in the sex industry who are at heightened risk of human trafficking. We would like to express our opposition to Operation Northern Spotlight and ask that B.C. law enforcement refrain from any future participation in this national anti-trafficking initiative.

      "Rescue" missions such as Operation Northern Spotlight do more harm than good (1). A quick-fix attempt to deal with a complex issue, Operation Northern Spotlight sweeps up everyone present for interrogation, detention, and/or arrest, without adequately distinguishing between those who are underage and/or coerced and those who are not.

      This strategy is one that is based on deception and manipulation, as evidenced by police posing as sex workers’ clients in hotel rooms and "shock and awe" raids on indoor sex-work venues. These actions foster distrust and adversarial relationships with law enforcement. Pulling people out of the sex industry without their consent and penalizing those who do not agree to exit the sex industry does not "save" or "rescue" them.

      "Rescuing" individuals who do not wish to be rescued has multiple impacts. Sex workers report being confused and frightened and may suffer trauma and even exhibit symptoms of posttraumatic stress disorder. Sex workers lose income and experience economic hardship. This places sex workers in a precarious position where they must either accept dates or provide services they normally wouldn’t to recoup losses. Operation Northern Spotlight can also have consequences for public health, as sex workers report reluctance to keep large quantities of condoms on commercial premises for fear of raids. Operation Northern Spotlight also has a ripple effect beyond those directly impacted by driving sex workers further underground to evade police detection and making sex workers less likely to turn to law enforcement if violence occurs.

      In order to be effective and to help exploited youth and trafficked persons, anti-trafficking solutions must be developed with the knowledge and expertise of sex workers. Combating human trafficking and upholding the rights, dignity, and safety of sex workers should not be mutually exclusive.

      As you are aware, British Columbia has a tragic history with regards to the deaths and disappearances of sex workers. In the past decade, progress has been made between law enforcement and sex workers to right the wrongs in the aftermath of the serial killer. Forsaken (2), the report of the Missing Women Commission of Inquiry, provided guidance to law enforcement on how to enhance the safety of vulnerable women in the sex industry. Operation Northern Spotlight is incompatible with the recommendations of Forsaken and does not have any place in this local context. Targeting individuals in the sex industry through approaches that induce fear and increase mistrust of law enforcement jeopardizes any chance of cooperation between sex workers and law enforcement. This type of repressive enforcement also threatens the foundation of a collaborative, multi-stakeholder, community-based approach (3) that is growing throughout British Columbia—a foundation that so many police officers, sex workers, and community organizations have painstakingly built over the last several years. In short, Operation Northern Spotlight jeopardizes our ability to keep moving forward on our shared goals of reducing violence against sex workers.

      We ask British Columbia law enforcement to decline any future invitation to participate in Operation Northern Spotlight. If the forthcoming Provincial Sex Work Enforcement Guidelines are modelled upon the Vancouver Police Department’s Sex Work Enforcement Guidelines (4), as per Forsaken Recommendation 5.8, Operation Northern Spotlight will be at odds with provincial guidelines for sex work-related policing approaches.

      In closing, we call upon British Columbia law enforcement to work with sex workers to develop best practices to help and support trafficked persons while protecting the safety, dignity and human rights of all individuals in the sex industry.

      1) The basis for this request is evidence that has been compiled in Canada and beyond that this type of rescue approach is ineffective. See M.Ditmore, “The Use of Raids to Fight Trafficking in Persons” available at, R. Maynard, “Fighting Wrongs with Wrongs? How Canadian Anti-Trafficking Crusades Have Failed Sex Workers, Migrants, and Indigenous Communities”, available at A. Hill, “How to Stage a Raid: Police, media and the master narrative of trafficking”, available at, and L.A. Jeffery, “Canada and migrant sex‐work: Challenging the ‘foreign’ in foreign policy”, available at

      2) For full report, see

      3) See Forsaken Recommendation 5.3.

      4) For full text, see

      Andrew Sorfleet, President, Triple-X Workers' Association of British Columbia
      Annie Temple, The Naked Truth
      BC Coalition of Experiential Communities
      Brenda Belak, Lawyer, Pivot Legal Society
      Cheryl Giesbrecht
      Dr. Lauren Casey
      2For full report, see
      3See Forsaken Recommendation 5.3.
      4For full text, see
      Dr. Sarah Hunt (Kwakwaka'wakw Nation), Assistant Professor, UBC
      Dr. Becki Ross, Professor, UBC & Co-Founder West End Sex Workers' Memorial
      Dr. Cecilia Benoit, University of Victoria
      Dr. Victoria Bungay, Canada Research Chair: Gender, Equity & Community Engagement, UBC
      Elizabeth Manning, PhD, RSW
      Esther Shannon, Founder, FIRST Decriminalize Sex Work
      Gender and Sexual Health Initiative, BC Centre for Excellence in HIV/AIDS
      Genevieve Fuji Johnson, Associate Professor, Simon Fraser University
      Hayli Millar, PhD (in Law), Associate Professor, University of the Fraser Valley
      Jan Wilson, Executive Director, Prince George New Hope Society
      Jody Paterson, PEERS Victoria
      John Lowman, Professor, Emeritus, School of Criminology, Simon Fraser University
      Joyce Arthur, FIRST Decriminalize Sex Work
      Kerry Porth, former sex worker and sex work activist
      Options for Sexual Health, Provincial Office
      PACE Society
      PEERS Victoria
      Sanctuary Health
      Sex Workers United Against Violence (SWUAV) Society
      SWAN Vancouver Society
      Tamara O'Doherty, PhD, JD, Simon Fraser University
      Vancouver Status of Women
      Warm Zone, Abbotsford
      West Coast Co-operative of Sex Industry Professionals