Nfld. & Labrador

Police defend human trafficking sting operation

Women's groups say the sting creates stress for sex workers but the RCMP expects Operation Northern Spotlight will likely continue next year.

Operation Northern Spotlight is a nationwide investigation that interviews sex workers

Police forces in Newfoundland and Labrador are defending a human trafficking sting operation that has come under fire from groups that advocate for women and sex workers.

Police say they are listening to critics who believe an operation that targets human trafficking is dishonest and distressing for sex workers but the RCMP expects it to continue next year.

"Yes, I think so, because we have been seeing some success," said St. John's RCMP Const. Colleen Noble.

"But it will be done in consultation with the people who are opposed to it and have been issuing news releases and letters against the project."

Aims to help sex workers

Police say Operation Northern Spotlight aims to help sex workers who may be victims of human trafficking.

They argue that the undercover operation, done in co-operation with police forces across the country since 2014, has made a positive difference, leading to 14 arrests and 21 charges — including trafficking in persons — in 2017.

We have been seeing some success.- Colleen Noble

"This year, with the support of community outreach and social workers, police interviewed 324 individuals believed to be at-risk and removed six, including two under the age of 18, from exploitive situations," the RCMP said in a news release Wednesday.

This month the St. John's-based Safe Harbour Outreach Project and the St. John's Status of Women's Council added their voices to a chorus of national groups calling for an end to the sting operation.
Heather Jarvis works with the Safe Harbour Outreach project. (Gary Locke/ CBC)

"It is damaging relationships in our community and creating situations where violence will actually increase," Heather Jarvis, project co-ordinator for SHOP, told CBC News.

Police posing as clients

According to Jarvis, Operation Northern Spotlight involves police officers posing as potential clients, and setting up meetings with sex workers.

"They come to a hotel room expecting to meet a client and expecting to gain income from this encounter, and instead are met with a team of police officers who question them. They feel very condescended to, they feel incredibly frightened. They're very worried about being arrested and put in jail."

Noble didn't contradict what sex workers told SHOP. 

"RCMP policy is that I don't discuss the exact techniques used in any investigation that we do but I can say that I won't dispute anything that has been said by any other organizations or agencies," she said.

All individuals are treated with the utmost respect.- Royal Newfoundland Constabulary statement

But Noble emphasized that police are trying to help vulnerable people rather than arrest those who willingly engage in sex work.

"The people who are being trafficked and are really, really vulnerable in an abusive, violent situation — those are the ones that we are trying to reach — and if somebody tells us that is not their situation we might ask them a few questions to make sure they are safe and they go on their way."

Sex workers treated with respect

In St. John's the RCMP carries out Operation Northern Spotlight in conjunction with the Royal Newfoundland Constabulary.

"All individuals are treated with the utmost respect and are advised that they are able to leave at any time," the RNC said in a statement.

"The intention of this tactic is to identify cases of human trafficking and sexual exploitation by interviewing those involved directly in the sex trade industry," the statement said. "A great amount of intelligence has been gathered about those who are sexually exploiting individuals."

The RNC said sex workers have given the police force positive feedback about the sting operation.
The RNC said it is getting positive feedback from sex workers about Operation Northern Spotlight. (CBC)

"Individuals officers have spoken with are typically very receptive to this operation as they realize that the intention is not to criminalize their work, but rather to make sure that they are safe."

Like the RCMP, the RNC says it wants to work with SHOP and the St. John's Status of Women's Council

"We are committed to continuing to work closely with our community partners."