Podcast: How Sex Workers Convinced Vancouver Police to Back Off

In this podcast, Katrina Pacey of Pivot Legal tells the story of how her organization and sex workers from the community succeeded in getting the Vancouver, Canada police to declare enforcement of anti-prostitution laws to be a low priority.  Using a variety of advocacy tactics, activists were able to convince police to adopt new and groundbreaking guidelines for police responses to adult sex work.

Be sure to check out Pivot Legal Society’s Know Your Rights cards, and learn more about them here.

Below, you’ll find the podcast audio file along with a transcript of the podcast.


1. Introduction to Pivot

My name is Katrina Pacey and I’’m the litigation director at Pivot Legal Society. Pivot is a human rights organization in the downtown east side of Vancouver. We work on a range of issues from a legal and social change perspective. So we work on sex workers’’ rights, drug policy issues, some police accountability issues, housing and homelessness and a range of other campaign areas.

And what we do is bring a legal lens to the movements that are already occurring in the community. So we try to use legal tools like strategic litigation and law reform to create social change. And we’’ve been working on sex workers’’ rights issues since about 2002 when Vancouver was—and actually still is—experiencing an epidemic of violence against sex workers. And Pivot started working with women working in street level sex trade, looking at the policy issues, and systemic issues that were creating a lack of safety for them and we’’ve been fighting for the decriminalization of adult sex workers ever since.

2. Violence and effect of policing 

Back in 2002 we started looking at the issue of violence against sex workers and Pivot was very open to any solutions that sex workers would propose or thought would make a difference in their lives. The key issue for them at that time, and continues to be an issue for them, was the fact that they are criminalized and that had a range of impacts on their safety. It both displaced them from indoor workspaces and placed them in very, very dangerous corners of the city where there was no one there for assistance if they were in trouble, where they couldn’’t work collectively and where because of their criminalization they were really at odds with the police. They didn’’t feel they could go to police if they were victims of crime and the police certainly didn’’t make them feel that they could come to them because not only did they treat them as criminals, but in addition to that the police have a history of neglecting violence against sex workers in this community. And that has come to every one’’s attention as a result of the Picton Inquiry. Robert Picton is responsible for the murders of many women from the neighborhood. And there’’s been a public inquiry as of late that’s really looked at police attitudes and the levels of negligence that occurred and the discrimination that’’s occurring.

So we took the law reform piece as a very central and key component of moving toward increased safety for sex workers in the city of Vancouver and of course anywhere in Canada. Our work has included both fighting for broad law reform across the country while also looking at local policing attitudes and policing practices to see if we could make a change both nationally and also at the local level.

3. Proposing a moratorium on policing sex work

We knew that fighting for decriminalization was a really important step and we knew that that was a really long process. We hoped that there would be leadership at the federal level in the early years. Back in 2004 we were working a lot with the federal government through the parliamentary committee they created actually looking at the impacts of the prostitution laws. That parliamentary process lead nowhere. And then we knew we were gonna have to engage in litigation to try to create that large-scale change. Having the laws that criminalize sex work actually struck down was going to have to happen through litigation and that was going to be a very long and drawn out process. In the meantime we felt very strongly that the local police department and in fact every police department around the country could take responsibility for what was happening in terms of sex workers’’ lack of safety and one thing that we started calling for in the very early years of 2002 and 2003 was what we called a moratorium on enforcement of the prostitution laws. And we were really inspired by what we saw happening in Seattle around marijuana prohibition, where we knew that the city of Seattle had taken some very progressive steps to deem marijuana possession to be what they called the lowest law enforcement priority. And so we thought well if the department here is not prepared to call it a moratorium on the laws, let’’s ask them to at least call it their lowest law enforcement priority. So we started approaching the department and saying, ““look, law enforcement reform is a slow process and we see it as necessary, but in the meantime we are asking local departments here in Vancouver, in light of all of the circumstances in this city, to do what they can, what’’s in their power, and that’’s to make the very important decision to stop arresting sex workers.””

4. Centrality of sex worker leadership in actions

Pivot started writing letters and calling for this change back in 2002 and 2003, and uh, was not warmly received by anyone [laughs]. The department basically just wouldn’’t talk to us. Because, at the same time as we were calling for these changes we were also in a very, very antagonistic relationship with the police department because we were doing a lot of work around police brutality in the city and the department had decided that they couldn’’t speak to us about anything because we were so busy suing them about the levels of violence that we were seeing against all marginalized people in the downtown. So for a long time we got nowhere as Pivot, but the good news is that sex workers themselves did and were developing very important relationships with the department and there were strong leaders like Susan Davis and others who were active and former sex workers who were not in as an antagonistic relationship as we are with the department and were really involved closely with police training starting to open up these dialogues. So I would actually say that Pivot cannot take responsibility for really having made this happen, because we were just not able to dialogue with the Department very effectively. Whereas sex workers themselves developed really important relationships and the Department itself kind of came around to taking responsibility for their piece of having not done all the things they could have over the years to establish relationships and so a number of intermediate steps took place such as establishing a sex worker liaison officer and starting a program called Sister Watch which was an attempt sort of to have a very low barrier reporting mechanism to the department. So they took a number of steps over the years and then ultimately our relationship with the department shifted. Pivot was then able to start conversations and then we started working on the policy itself.

5. Police concerns

There was a series of concerns the Department had about coming to a place where they said they were no longer going to enforce the prostitution laws. And those concerns are first and foremost that they police department does have to respond to complaints they receive from communities. And those complaints are predominantly nuisance complaints and they’’re not allowed to ignore those. And we did have to work through, how does the department actually deal with those in a way that prioritizes sex workers safety but also where they are able to do their job, which is to respond to community when the community asks them to come. Actually there’’s two other points of real contention. One is around arresting clients and doing undercover stings, where they pose as female sex workers standing on the street, male drives up in a vehicle and then there’’s another officer around the street who then arrests him. And we were really urging the department to no longer do that. To say in the policy that they would no longer be arresting clients as part of an overall strategy to increase sex workers’’ safety and they were not willing to do that. And I totally and completely disagree with their motivations for these quote unquote client stings. They somehow are under the impression that client stings actually assist them in pursuing predators or perpetrators. There’’s no basis of evidence that doing undercover stings furthers their investigation into perpetrators or violent clients. So I think that was completely ideologically driven, or politics driven. And the second thing was over the indoor venues and we really struggled with this because the department said that they would still need to be able to go into indoor venues if they thought that underage workers were being employed there, if they thought that trafficking was taking place, or that there was some other organized crime element or something going on that was above and beyond any concerns regarding the fact that sex work was taking place.

What the policy essentially says is that they are concerned about all those things listed such as sexually exploited youth, trafficking and organized crime, but that consensual adult sex work is their lowest priority… is a low law enforcement priority and that they will attempt a range of other measures before they raid an indoor venue. So it’’s a bit vague but it never the less contains some really important language and we can hold the police to account with that. Its progress but it is not complete progress.

6. Impact of the policy

The policy itself has a couple of very important statements in it and one is that—and I’’m quoting from the policy–sex work involving consenting adults is not an enforcement priority for the VPD. That is in itself a really important statement, making that known throughout the department so that the officers are operating with the same policy information. If when they receive a nuisance complaint from either a community member or a business or a resident where they see sex workers working street level and they’’re concerned about that or when you have somebody who believes that their neighbor is working in sex work in an apartment building or in a house adjacent to theirs. And what the policy says is that if the department sees one of those quote ““nuisance complaints”” that what they will do is go through a range of alternatives measures to try to resolve the issue before they would ever resort to enforcement. And so what I understand that to mean—and what the police department advised me that that means—is that they will work with sex worker organizations with community policing centers and work with folks to try to work these situations out through dialogue. And so an example would be that you have a street level worker and you have a complaint from a neighbor they will go to an organization such as WISH which is a sex worker serving organization in Vancouver who operate an outreach vehicle and engage what’’s called the ““map van”” to go and have a conversation with her about what her options are. And its still not perfect because it still may mean that she ends up being asked to move somewhere else and it may still have a displacement effect but at least the conversation will happen with a sex work organization.

It’’s a bit grey because it still is unclear what exactly they mean by alternative measures in every single circumstance, but because the policy says that sex workers’’ safety is the department’’s primary concern in all circumstances to me that’’s the ultimate test for their enforcement action.  So that’’s for me a really important shift and an important acknowledgement and applicable in all aspects of the industry. We can start to work with that and see what it actually means on the ground.

7. Accountability and impact on legislation

There’’s a lot of enthusiasm and people are feeling very encouraged by this. What is still of concern for sex workers is how is this policy and the information contained in the policy going to be taught to department members. So there’’s concern over the degree to which education is actually going be deep enough, and then there’’s concern over accountability, which I think is a very legitimate concern. We have very significant problems in Vancouver and across the country regarding police accountability, where we have a system where the police essentially investigate themselves. And so what Pivot is trying to do, the first thing we’’re going to do is create a rights card where we set the policy out in plain language for sex workers. So we’’re gonna do a lot of street level education around what the policy says and then Pivot’’s gonna work with our friends in the sex workers’’ rights movement and sex workers in organizations to try to create an accountability mechanism amongst the organizations themselves so that we have a mechanism for sex workers to report to us if they are experiencing harassment or being targeted. And we’’re less concerned about sex workers being arrested anymore and now we’’re now just more concerned about officers harassing workers. Parking their cars close to where sex workers are working, doing the various things that they do to try to disrupt quote unquote the street level sex trade. So we’’re going to try our best to sort of bolster the accountability system that’’s in place at the department and provincial level by having a community based accountability mechanism and because the […] inquiry has highlighted the extent of the problems within the department, I think that the police are pretty invested in building their reputations back up and so I think that will have an impact if we can do media and public education and really make sure that we hold the police to account.

It was really interesting actually, the Department was actually saying, “”Vancouver could be a leader in building relationships with sex workers in that community and providing the best possible police protections to these vulnerable women.”” And it was really interesting to see the department as saying, “”Let’’s be leaders on this issue,” ’cause its certainly not the way they’’re seen in the community [laughs] or are known at this point as a result of their failure to care about the safety of sex workers in the past. So what I think may happen, and what we would hope would happen, is that the department does encourage other departments across the country to adopt similar policies and start to create a shift nationally. At the same time I think that it will be interesting to see the extent to which it does impact the litigation that is ongoing. I think like any litigation, you have your evidence that’’s before the court, that’’s on the record, but you also have the broader public and political circumstances and my hope is that the police department’’s policy will become part of a shift that can be occurring in other departments. That some how this will be on the radar of the courts because the Supreme Court of Canada may then be aware that police officers themselves are recognizing the harms that criminalization will continue to cause if the laws are upheld.

So the Department’’s policy at this point is not a matter of the record that the litigation has created but it nevertheless is part of the public consciousness and I hope that it will have the impact of adding to the court’’s understanding of the harms caused by these laws.

8. Could this approach be used elsewhere?

I think that the situation in Vancouver is seen to a greater or lesser extent in all cities and in rural places all over the world. I think that the criminalization of sex workers contributes to violence in so many contexts and I think that there’’s an emerging and growing understanding in the consciousness about that. I mean I have a letter from the police board 10 years ago that says that arresting sex workers is an integral part of the police response because it’’s the only way that the police can interrupt the cycle of prostitution and interrupt the circumstances of these vulnerable women’’s lives. It wasn’’t so much saying that sex workers are horrible people who deserve to be criminalized, it was this opposite view that they’’re victims and that somehow arresting them is rescuing and saving them.

And I think that there’’s an emerging and growing understanding that that’’s just a false belief and that that doesn’’t work, and its never worked and it never will work, and in fact that it exacerbates so many harms that sex workers are experiencing, and in terms of violence and their health and stigma and discrimination and everything else. So I would say that it’’s a very important time to start engaging police departments in these conversations. As with our experience, it took a decade, but unfortunately change is slow. And it’’s certainly worth starting that conversation and um there’’s such a strong body of evidence nationally to show how criminalization creates incredible harm and so it’’s important to start putting that before the Department and to start wrestling with the role that police officers are playing and the justice systems are playing in marginalizing sex workers.

Posted in Advocacy Tactics, Police Sensitization, Resources.