Non-profit supporting sex workers ends partnership with VPD over officer's abuse, alleged police harassment
Living in Community cites former detective James Fisher's abuse of victims
A non-profit that aims to improve the health and safety of sex workers is ending its 16-year partnership with the Vancouver Police Department over concerns about officer misconduct and treatment of those who work in the sex trade.
Living in Community (LIC) says VPD officers will no longer be part of a steering committee that brings together sex workers, community groups, health organizations, government and businesses to address issues related to prostitution.
"We're disappointed," LIC 's director of community engagement Halena Seiferling told CBC.
"We feel at this time that we've tried quite hard over the years to provide education and training and bring the VPD into these conversations, and in return, we have felt like we have not gotten that same sort of reciprocity and collaborative spirit."
The decision was a particularly tricky one because LIC was originally formed in 2004 in response to distrust between sex workers and the police in the aftermath of the botched investigation into the Robert Pickton murders.
Seiferling said that in the beginning, LIC was able to start rebuilding some of that trust, but new problems have popped up in recent years.
That includes former detective James Fisher's admitted abuse of young victims of sex trafficking and the connected allegations of corruption against three of his fellow officers in the Counter Exploitation Unit.
The police department has also repeatedly declined LIC's offers of training for officers dealing with the sex trade, Seiferling said.
"Then of course, there's been many of our other steering committee members … reporting incidences of police surveillance and harassment of sex workers," she added.
"Some of these we've heard have continued and been exacerbated during the COVID-19 pandemic as well."
LIC has also alleged that police placed a member of the steering committee under investigation for prostitution-related offences, but the VPD denies that anyone on the committee has been the subject of a criminal probe.
VPD says it prioritizes protecting sex workers from violence
It's taken more than a year and a half for LIC to come to this decision. The VPD was temporarily removed from the steering committee in May 2019, and the split was made permanent late in 2020. Chief Const. Adam Palmer and Deputy Chief Const. Laurence Rankin were informed on Nov. 30, according to Seiferling.
VPD spokesperson Simi Heer told CBC that the department hopes to reconnect with Living in Community as soon as possible, saying police are committed to building relationships that help keep sex workers safe.
"The VPD's priority is to protect the sex industry from violence, predators and being exploited through human trafficking and organized crime. We prioritize investigating abuse and violence toward marginalized or vulnerable people — especially youth exploited through human trafficking," Heer wrote in an email, explaining that all officers receive training on these priorities.
"The VPD has not arrested any sex worker for prostitution offences in over a decade."
She acknowledged that Fisher's crimes have damaged the VPD's relationships in the community, calling his behaviour "reprehensible."
Heer added that the department is open to working with community groups on training, but it hasn't been possible in the last year because of the COVID-19 pandemic.
For her part, Seiferling emphasized that LIC's decision isn't necessarily final.
"We've said in a letter to them, as well, that in the future, if or when we see a demonstrated commitment to sex worker health and safety from the VPD, we would be willing to engage with them again," Seiferling said.