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The Globe and Mail

Prostitution 'tolerance zones' reflected aims of law, Pickton inquiry told

Women sing and chant outside of the missing women inquiry in downtown Vancouver, Tuesday, Oct. 11, 2011. Commissioner Wally Oppal has opened hearings to examine why police failed to stop Robert Pickton as he murdered impoverished sex workers from Vancouver's Downtown Eastside.

Jonathan Hayward/The Canadian Press/Jonathan Hayward/The Canadian Press

Police efforts to move prostitutes out of residential neighbourhoods and into dark isolated areas of the Downtown Eastside reflected the intention of Canada's laws on prostitution, the Pickton inquiry heard Thursday.

In cross-examination by police lawyer Tim Dickson, criminologist John Lowman told the inquiry that the current law on prostitution, upheld by the Supreme Court of Canada in 1990, was intended to make prostitution less visible. Residents objected to the activity on their street. The police responded by pushing women to other neighbourhoods.

The best practical response police could offer, from an enforcement standpoint, was to create a "zone of tolerance," such as the area in the Downtown Eastside, said Prof. Lowman of Simon Fraser University, who has done research on prostitution for more than 30 years.

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Police acknowledged that the strategy was not designed to address conditions which lead to prostitution, he told the inquiry. It was clear to police by the mid-1990s that, if street prostitution was really going to be addressed, then it was not going to be done by police – it has to be done by all three levels of government in co-ordinated fashion.

Earlier, Prof. Lowman told the inquiry that relocating prostitution strolls from residential neighbourhoods to isolated areas of the Downtown Eastside may have contributed to Robert Pickton's ability to meet women without being seen.

The police began creating "tolerance zones" in 1988, when police and social agencies devised a strategy to displace prostitution from residential areas. The women were directed to work in the more isolated streets and alleys in commercial and industrial areas. Subsequently, the women were told if they worked in the streets and alleyways of the Downtown Eastside, they would not be charged, Prof. Lowman said in a report prepared for the inquiry.

Later, Vancouver Police Department lawyer Sean Hern told the inquiry that police have asked for a publication ban on the names and any information related to any living person identified as a victim, witness, suspect or accused person in documents provided to by the police to the commission. He suggested a list of 13 persons who could be mentioned, such as Mr. Pickton and his brother Dave.

Cheryl Tobias, a federal lawyer representing the RCMP, said the publication ban would protect the privacy of people such as those identified in adoption records, on bad-date lists of violent men circulated by prostitutes in the Downtown Eastside, and individuals who were identified by police but not charged.

The proposed publication ban was "unheard of" and would turn the hearings into "a private inquiry of police," Jason Gratl, a lawyer representing views of the Downtown Eastside communities, told the inquiry. Commissioner Wally Oppal has not set a date to consider the proposed publication ban.

Mr. Oppal was appointed to inquire into why Mr. Pickton was not arrested sooner. He was arrested in 2002 and convicted in 2007 of the second-degree murder of six women. He has said he killed 49 women.

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