British Columbia

Advocates for sex trade workers raise concerns about VicPD human trafficking probe

Project No More aimed to identify area sex trade workers who are, or are at risk of, being victims of human traffickers, but critics of the project say police tactics were manipulative.

Project No More aimed to support trafficking victims but critics say tactics were manipulative

The goal of Project No More, according to the Victoria Police Department, was to combat human trafficking by connecting with those who may be at risk of being trafficked for sexual exploitation. (Victoria Police Department/Facebook)

A project conducted by the Victoria Police Department to combat human trafficking for the purpose of sexual exploitation is being criticized by advocates for sex trade workers who say the operation used manipulative tactics to trick already vulnerable women into speaking with officers.

Project No More took place in mid-June. Victoria police officers, posing as a potential client, contacted sex-trade workers through a website advertising local escort services and set up meetings at a hotel where the women were met by plainclothes officers and a social worker.

According to Cam McIntyre, a spokesperson for the VicPD, officers went through about 100 ads and met with eight women, one of whom, he said, was dropped off at the meeting by a known trafficker with previous convictions related to human trafficking.

"The officers were focused on meeting with potential victims to offer resources and assistance and also to gather information, but the primary focus here was victim-centred," said McIntyre.

'Manipulative' tactics alleged

Rachel Phillips, executive director of PEERS Victoria, which does outreach within the sex worker community, said she is concerned about the approach taken by police.

"They were tricked into trying to report something and I don't think that's good practice or respectful of their rights or their time," said Phillips Tuesday on On The Island.

She called the tactics "manipulative" and the kind of thing police have done historically that has led to distrust among sex workers. Phillips also said that of the eight women who met with police, no charges against traffickers came out of those conversations.

"This operation essentially came up empty-handed," said Phillips. "I'm not saying that trafficking doesn't exist ... I'm saying it is an ineffective and blunt approach to try to trick women who are not reporting something into meeting with you for the purpose of reporting something."

According to VicPD,  the women were all immediately advised that they were free to leave when they arrived at the hotel and were under no obligation to speak with police. They also received support resources, toiletries, clothes and gift cards to obtain basic items.

Fake job poses real risks

Sophia Ciavarella, a former sex trade worker and current operations manager at PEERS Victoria, said she worries about the women who spoke with officers when they go back to work after taking a call for a fake job that did not pay them. 

She said when she was working in the sex trade, returning from a job without money would put her in danger.

"[Police] should be more concerned about sex workers' actual safety and security versus finding amorphous trafficking," said Ciavarella, also speaking on On The Island Tuesday.

She said a holistic approach to addressing sex trade worker's needs, such as combating socio-economic insecurity, anti-sex work stigma and systemic discrimination would go further in keeping them safe then going after the "bad guys."

"It's easy to focus on random dark strangers in alleys versus ... all of the issues that make people vulnerable to exploitation in the first place which this operation and indeed our entire society, is complicit in," said Ciavarella.

'They need our help'

McIntyre said Project No More did provide officers with important information and confirmed to the force what they already knew— that there are trafficking victims in the community.

"They need our help and we are here to listen and provide assistance," he said.

Phillips said she will be meeting with the police department in the coming days to voice her concerns.

Moving forward, she would like the VicPD to work collaboratively with PEERS, take a rights-based approach to the sex industry and to make sure when sex trade workers do report something the charges are followed up on.

"There is no shortage of work to be done, and police need to listen to sex workers as their guides in terms of how to do that work responsibly," said Phillips.

The Canadian Human Trafficking Hotline is 1-833-900-1010 nationwide and confidential help is available around the clock in more than 200 languages. 

To hear Cam McIntyre, Rachel Phillips and Sophia Ciavarella interviewed on On The Island, tap here.

With files from On The Island

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