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Vancouver police to prioritize safety over anti-prostitution laws

Kerry Proth, chairwoman of the Pivot Legal Society a former sex worker, says she’d like to see more uptake of the VPD’s philosophy from other police forces in Canada when it comes to dealing with sex workers.

John Lehmann/The Globe and Mail

New federal anti-prostitution laws criminalizing the purchase of sex will be in effect as of Saturday, but the Vancouver Police Department have no plans for a crackdown.

"Sex work involving consenting adults is not an enforcement priority for the VPD," the police department's sex-work enforcement guidelines say.

The 2013 document stipulates "alternative measures and assistance must be considered with enforcement a last resort." This means that although the new anti-prostitution laws allow police to arrest those purchasing sex, the Vancouver Police Department will not be making hasty moves based on the new law.

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"Our priority will remain the safety of sex workers," VPD spokesman Sergeant Randy Fincham said.

The Conservative government introduced Bill C-36 as a response to the Bedford case, in which the Supreme Court of Canada found the country's anti-prostitution laws unconstitutional. Bill C-36 received royal assent on Nov. 6, signalling the decriminalization of brothels and the advertisement of sex work. However, the law also criminalizes the purchasing of sex. Experts call this demand-side prohibition, saying it comes from "the view that women involved in sex work are nothing but victims."

"And that men who buy sex are sexual deviants," said John Lowman, a criminology professor at Simon Fraser University.

Sex-worker advocacy groups argue the new law will put outdoor sex workers in danger.

"They won't be able to go to public places to screen clients adequately because the clients are worried their information will get to police," said Laura Dilley, executive director of PACE (Providing Alternatives, Counselling and Education) Society.

Rights groups such as the Pivot Legal Society that represent marginalized communities have worked with the VPD in recent years to improve the lives of sex workers in Vancouver. But the implementation of the police department's sex-work enforcement guidelines is taking too long, said Kerry Porth, chairwoman of Pivot and a former sex worker herself.

"At the moment, it's a piece of paper," she said. "It's taken a very, very long time for officers to even be made aware of it or to be trained specifically on it."

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Ms. Porth sees room for improvement in the training as well. "The training doesn't include experience from people who have actually done sex work," she said.

The VPD is known as a progressive police force for adopting harm-reduction strategies for marijuana and sex work.

"We're pretty lucky in Vancouver because we've worked with the VPD for a number of years," Ms. Porth said. "I'd like to see more uptake of that philosophy from other police forces in Canada."

Dr. Lowman called out Canada's other police forces, saying they were "stuck in the 19th and early-20th century when it comes to the moral outlooks that they take."

The prostitution-law expert pointed out that Vancouver is in a unique position because of the Robert Pickton case, in which it took police decades to find out what happened to dozens of missing women from Vancouver's Downtown Eastside.

"In that context, prohibition and punitive measures clearly are not what the VPD has concluded is the way to go," Dr. Lowman said.

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There is no research yet assessing the effectiveness of Vancouver police's approach in addressing sex work, as the guidelines were introduced fewer than two years ago. Experts say it takes years to gather enough evidence to measure the effectiveness of the enforcement strategy.

But Dr. Lowman is optimistic. "The most remarkable thing about the VPD enforcement guidelines is their inclusiveness," he said. "They're designed to protect the community and sex workers."

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