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Ottawa sex workers angry at police sting operation

Operation Northern Spotlight sought to locate victims of trafficking

Credit: ThinkStock

Police are calling a two-day anti-trafficking sting a success, but local sex-trade workers say their tactics are intimidating the wrong people.

On Jan 22 and Jan 23, the Ottawa Police Service (OPS) was among 26 police forces across the country participating in Operation Northern Spotlight, which aimed to find female trafficking victims forced to work in the sex-trade industry.

Coordinated by the Durham Regional Police Service, the initiative involved police officers interviewing more than 330 women, including some who are underage. Officers would contact an escort for a date, then show up at the escort’s door in uniform, ask to be let in and assess whether or not the sex worker was being victimized, says Inspector Paul Johnston, of the OPS.

“Had we announced our presence the controller has an opportunity to remove the victims or not cooperate at all,” he says. “By coming basically unannounced we have an opportunity to assess the situation.”

Although police made no local arrests, eight arrests and 28 charges connected to trafficking were laid across Canada over the two-day operation, Johnston says, adding that the sting was a success.

For Prostitutes of Ottawa-Gatineau Work, Educate and Resist (POWER), the sting was anything but successful. The sex workers’ rights organization issued a press release Jan 26 calling the operation a “huge step backwards” and criticized police for intimidating sex workers.

“I’m just shocked by how they’ve gone about doing this,” says a local independent escort who’s been a member of POWER for four years. Speaking to Xtra using the pseudonym Caroline Newcastle, she says that between the current grey area around the legality of in-call sex work and the stigma surrounding the industry and sex workers’ need for safety and privacy, the sting was ill-conceived and troubling.

“They really need to sit down with local sex workers’ human rights organizations like POWER here in Ottawa or Stella in Montreal or Maggie’s in Toronto to foster an environment of trust and mutual information sharing,” Newcastle says.

Johnston says he understands why it can be intimidating to open your door to several police officers instead of a client but says that no charges were laid related to voluntary sex work and that Ottawa police will use these tactics again to look for trafficking victims.

“If (POWER) wants to meet, I would be more than interested in meeting them,” Johnston says. “I think open dialogue is always good.”