The Vancouver Police Department’s decades-long campaign to move sex workers into the darkest, dirtiest streets of the city’s Downtown Eastside was only in response to a law that intended to keep prostitutes out of sight, the force’s lawyer told a public inquiry Thursday.
The hearing into the Robert Pickton case has heard from several witnesses who have complained about police tactics that have displaced sex workers and contained them in dangerously isolated areas of the city, where they are easy prey for predators.
But Vancouver police lawyer Tim Dickson suggested the force was only doing the best it could under the law that prohibits communication for the purposes of prostitution, which came into effect in 1985. The law replaced previous provisions that made solicitation a crime.
“The police have a mandate to enforce a law that has as its purpose removing prostitution from streets and from view … but when the police do enforce the law, the street prostitution doesn’t go away, it just goes somewhere else,” Dickson said when cross-examining Simon Fraser University criminologist John Lowman.
“That’s the general pattern,” replied Lowman.
Dickson argued the law was never intended to eradicate prostitution, but rather address the public nuisances associated with sex work. He noted displace-and-contain strategies such as those used in Vancouver, which create areas in which prostitution is tolerated, are in place in other cities across Canada.
Neither did the law attempt to address any of the underlying causes of prostitution, said Dickson, which he said would have required intervention at all three levels of government.
“And the best practical response the police can offer, at least from an enforcement standpoint, is to create a zone of tolerance,” said Dickson.
‘Charges against sex-trade workers have declined dramatically.’—Vancouver police lawyer Tim Dickson
“In terms of those issues, yes,” replied Lowman.
Lowman said the law only appears to target street-level sex work, leaving a two-tiered system in which safer forms of prostitution such as escort services and massage parlours are effectively legal.
Lowman earlier testified that street prostitutes are on the bottom of those two tiers, where drug-addicted women, often aboriginal, sell sex to feed their habits and survive.
Dickson also noted changes in how Vancouver police respond to the sex trade.
Dickson was cross-examining criminologist John Lowman. CBCLowman presented statistics about charges against sex workers. Through much of the 1990s, Vancouver police laid hundreds of charges a year of communicating for the purposes of prostitution.
Dickson said that’s no longer the case.
“Charges against sex-trade workers have declined dramatically,” said Dickson. “And these days, there are extremely few charges against sex workers laid by the VPD.”
Foreshadowing police defence
Vancouver police have apologized several times for failing to catch Pickton as he murdered sex workers in the late 1990s and early 2000s. The force released a report last year that was critical of itself and the RCMP in nearby Port Coquitlam, where Pickton’s farm was located.
However, the Vancouver force’s opening statement also foreshadowed how it will defend itself during the hearings, admitting its investigation was flawed while insisting its officers were still doing their best with the information they had at the time. The department said it shouldn’t be scrutinized and blamed with the benefit of hindsight.
The RCMP has not offered such an apology or admitted its officers made mistakes, insisting it is up to the inquiry to confirm what happened.
Pickton was eventually arrested in 2002, but by then dozens of women had disappeared from the Downtown Eastside.
The remains or DNA of 33 women were found on Pickton’s farm in Port Coquitlam, east of Vancouver, though Pickton claimed to have killed 49.
He was eventually convicted of six counts of second-degree murder and was sentenced to life with no chance of parole for at least 25 years.
The public inquiry is examining the failed police investigation, as well as the decision by Crown counsel not to prosecute Pickton for attempted murder after an attack on a sex worker in 1997.
The hearings are expected to stretch on for months, hearing from a range of experts, investigators, prosecutors and sex workers.
The families of Pickton’s victims will begin their testimony next week.