Dana Larsen: Top antiprostitution cop was abusing sex workers

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      The Vancouver Police Department has a lot of problems when it comes to sexual harassment and abuse.

      Last year, more than 60 officers and civilian staff reported workplace harassment, mainly related to race, gender and sexual come-ons.

      The reports came through an anonymous survey, with the vast majority saying they would not make a formal complaint because they didn't think the VPD would do anything—and that making such a complaint would bring retaliation and ruin their career.

      Meanwhile, VPD constable Nicole Chan committed suicide last year, after nine years on the force. She had been waiting over a year for her harassment complaint against two senior officers to be heard.

      The officers were both "in a relationship" with Chan, which she described in her diary as being "betrayed, coerced and taken advantage of by somebody whom I respected and looked up to".

      After Chan's death, CTV News repored on another half-dozen VPD members, men and women, claiming systemic harassment within the department from fellow constables and also supervisors.

      So with all this in mind, perhaps it's not surprising that last year the head of the VPD's specialized "Counter Exploitation Unit"—a group supposedly there to help people trapped in the sex trade—was convicted and sentenced to 20 months in jail for sexually exploiting sex workers.

      This spring, CBC reporter Bethany Lindsay reported new allegations in a separate court case that James Fisher, once a celebrated officer, had spent years sexually abusing the young women he was supposed to be protecting, starting soon after he joined the Counter Exploitation Unit (CEU) in 2011.

      These claims have not been proven in court.

      In that same court case, other officers were accused of covering up for Fisher. Constables Adam King, Silvana Burtini and Zach Guy of the CEU were all under investigation for allegedly deceiving VPD investigators with false statements during the investigation into Fisher. 

      However, after a three-year investigation, the special prosecutor recently decided not to lay charges against any of the three, saying "the standard for criminal charges had not been met".

      Those criteria include a substantial likelihood of conviction and a prosecution being in the public interest.

      Time to reform the police

      The standard for criminal charges is one thing, but the standard for public trust is another. That's apparent in the case of Myles Gray, the unarmed Sechelt man beaten to death after being apprehended by eight VPD officers whose identities have been kept secret.

      How much can you trust the VPD when dozens of officers and civilian workers are reporting a workplace where racial and sexual harassment is commonplace, and victims are afraid to speak out?

      How much can you trust the VPD when the head of their Counter-Exploitation Unit sexually exploited the women he was supposed to be protecting, with allegations, albeit unproven, of other officers were covering up for him?

      How much can you trust the VPD when you know that there's eight officers on the street who were present when an unarmed man was beaten to death, and we don't even know their names?

      The reality is that the paramilitary structure of policing creates a culture of fear and abuse among officers, which is then reflected out onto the population.

      This seems to be a perfect time to rethink how we do policing in Canada. We could begin by not training police like they’re joining the military, breaking up overburdened police departments, and finding better ways to ensure safe communities and the rule of law.

      Dana Larsen is an author, advocate, and activist for cannabis and drug-policy reform. Follow him on Twitter @danalarsen. This is the latest in a series of articles looking at the culture of sexual harassment and intimidation within Canadian police forces. Anyone in B.C. who is in distress can call 1-800-SUICIDE (1-800-784-2433) for help. There's also a mental-health support line (604-310-6789) and a seniors distress line (604-872-1234).