A nation-wide police blitz that sex workers say involved police officers posing as clients to investigate human trafficking in the sex trade used dishonest tactics, advocates say.

Big Susie's, a Hamilton-based group founded by and for sex workers, joined five other advocacy groups across the country to voice their concerns about Project Northern Spotlight, a nation-wide police initiative aimed at identifying young women coerced into sex trade.

The two-day blitz, which took place on Jan. 22 and 23, was coordinated by the Durham Regional Police Services and involved 26 police services across 32 cities.

The blitz took place at hotels and motels on major roads, according to a release by Durham police. More than 330 women and girls — some as young as 15 — were interviewed.

Police officers posed as clients and booked appointments with sex workers during the blitz, according to a joint statement issued by the groups. As they checked for signs of trafficking or coercion, officers “bombarded” sex workers with personal questions, asked to see identifications and searched the sex workers' premises and belongings, the statement said. 

"They are using dishonest methods to gain access to sex workers," said Mz. Scream, who sits on the board of directors at Big Susie's. “When police show up at sex workers' doors, it can affect the sex workers' relationship with their neighbours and landlords, and can also scare away clients who require a great deal of confidentiality.” 

Mz. Scream, a former dominatrix and current university student in sexuality studies, asked to use her professional pseudonym instead of her real name.

28 charges laid

The blitz also aggravated the lingering distrust between sex workers and the police, Mz. Scream told CBC Hamilton.

“Sex workers are not all victims. Harassing people at the door of their workplace or home is not going to create a better relationship between police and sex workers,” she said.

Insp. Dave Saliba of Durham police refused to say whether police officers posed as clients, citing it was part of the details of the operation. He also said although Durham police coordinated the blitz, local police forces had the autonomy to design their own operations. 

"We give them the guidelines of the project. How they commence their operational plan is up to the agency itself," he told CBC News in Hamilton.

Durham police sent both male and female officers and they were in plainclothes, Saliba added.   

During Project Northern Spotlight, police identified 25 suspected human traffickers and eight were arrested. They also laid 28 charges.

"Any time that we are fortunate enough that we are able to save one person, then our project has been hugely successful," Saliba said. 

Supreme Court decision

Project Northern Spotlight took place a month after the Supreme Court struck down Canada's anti-prostitution laws. The top court ruled that the laws — which prohibit brothels, living on the avails of prostitution and communicating in public with clients — was over-broad. 

Saliba said, however, that the timing of the blitz was coincidental and prostitution activities were not targeted during the blitz. 

"We are well aware of where the Supreme Court is going with that, that's not our intention," he said. 

Police officers' objective was to ensure that the sex workers, Saliba said, are working willingly instead of being coerced. 

"Once we have identified that, we don't have that interaction with them. We let them know that there are some support services out there should they choose to use it, but that's about it."

Project Northern Spotlight was a continuation of two local initiatives by Durham police targeting human trafficking, Saliba said.

Project Armstrong, which began in October 2013, focused on at-risk women in the sex trade industry. Officers encountered 39 escorts and found at least nine of them had been or were victims of human trafficking, according to the release. It resulted in 9 arrests and 83 charges.

Last March, Durham police also launched Project Spencer that targeted human trafficking activities at various hotels in Whitby. The blitz resulted in Durham Region's first human trafficking conviction after a 33-year-old Whitby man was convicted of human trafficking in connection with two women aged 21 and 23.

Durham police will continue their human trafficking investigation, Saliba said. 

"It's one of those things that are too lucrative for those that are exploiting the victims. Do I think the problem will disappear? Absolutely not," he said. 

For future interactions, Mz. Scream said police should be more transparent with sex workers to develop a trusting relationship. 

“This way, sex workers would feel more comfortable contacting the police if they are in danger, or if they want to report about the danger of others.”