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RNC defends Operation Northern Spotlight

The Royal Newfoundland Constabulary (RNC) is defending Operation Northern Spotlight in response to recent concerns made public by the St. John’s Status of Women Council.

Late last week, the St. John’s Status of Women Council called for an end to Operation Northern Spotlight, an annual police attempt to target human trafficking.

The women’s council operates the Safe Harbour Outreach Project (SHOP).

“We have been working with the police in good faith to find strategies to reduce violence against sex workers and find meaningful ways in which sex workers and the police can work collaboratively. Operation Northern Spotlight has broken that trust,” council executive director Jenny Wright had stated in a news release.

But the RNC’s efforts to defend Operation Northern Spotlight Wednesday did not quell concerns.

Heather Jarvis, program co-ordinator for SHOP, said Wednesday the RNC’s re-enforcing of its good intentions is disappointing. Furthermore, SHOP doesn’t know any local advocates for sex trade workers who have been consulted by police, she said.

Jarvis said her group is disappointed any advocates in the country would condone an operation that causes more harm than good, and many women involved in the sex trade are negatively affected by the police operation.

“They might be trying to do good, but they are hurting so many people along the way and are damaging so many relationships,” Jarvis said.

The RNC said Wednesday Operation Northern Spotlight was inspired by an FBI initiative dubbed Operation Cross Country created to help combat the domestic sex trafficking of children in the United States.

Operation Northern Spotlight as a national operation involved police agencies at municipal, provincial and federal levels working to identify potential victims of human sex trafficking and to raise awareness of sexual exploitation, the RNC said.

This year’s Operation Northern Spotlight took place between October 11 and 15.

During the operation, undercover officers make contact with women and men on social media sites commonly used in the “escort” sex trade industry and arrange to meet at hotel rooms, RNC spokesman Const. Geoff Higdon said in the RNC statement.

“These individuals are not arrested or detained and are immediately told that it is a police operation. All individuals are treated with the utmost respect and are advised that they are able to leave at any time. The intention of this tactic is to identify cases of human trafficking and sexual exploration by interviewing those involved directly in the sex trade industry away from individuals who may be controlling them. A great amount of intelligence has been gathered about those who are sexually exploiting individuals which is then forwarded nationally to the RCMP.”

The RNC said the people spoken to by police during the operation seem receptive and don’t view the operation as criminalizing their work, which is contrary to what SHOP reiterated Wednesday — that many women do feel criminalized by the encounter.

“Furthermore, the RNC and RCMP in our jurisdiction worked with representatives from the local advocacy groups to provide sex trade workers with information on resources available to them if they are wishing to exit the industry. We understand that many in the industry are not there because they want to, but rather as a byproduct of addictions or mental health. Officers additionally provide individuals with personal care and hygiene supplies,” the RNC statement said.

The RNC and the RCMP have conducted the joint force operation in Newfoundland and Labrador since 2015.

“Officers who are directly involved in this operation are committed and invested professionals who are extremely sensitive and understanding of the complexities and challenges faced by those involved in the sex trade industry,” the statement said. “Many of these officers have, over the years, developed a large degree of trust with those who are involved in the sex trade industry and formed trusting and productive working relationships. We are committed to continuing to work closely with our community partners for the purpose of addressing the issue of human trafficking and sexual exploitation that exist within our province. We believe many community support and resource groups provide a valuable service to vulnerable members of our community. Operation Northern Spotlight serves to achieve a common goal which is to ensure the safety of sex workers and protect vulnerable persons and children.”

Sex workers report being confused and frightened and may suffer trauma and even exhibit symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder, the St. John’s Status of Women Council said last week, adding they lose income and experience economic hardship. Sex workers are then put in a precarious position where they must either accept dates or provide services they normally would not, the council said.

In Canada, 334 interviews took place, with a total of 16 individuals removed from exploitative situations, the RCMP reported in a statement about this year’s Operation Northern Spotlight.

Jarvis said she’s glad some people were helped, but at what cost to the others who are not being exploited or are the victims of human trafficking.

While police say they have a common goal of ensuring the safety of sex workers, Jarvis said locally police have been hearing for two years now that Operation Northern Spotlight is increasing violence in those women’s lives.

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