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A partnership intended to improve relations between sex workers and police officers has come to an end after advocates say relations have gotten worse, not better.
The SHOP Liaison Officer Partnership was started in 2014 after the Safe Harbour Outreach Project (SHOP) approached the Royal Newfoundland Constabulary (RNC) hoping to improve communication, end stigma, and educate police officers in how to help people working in the sex industry.
“Since 2014, we have consistently heard sex workers and survivors in our community tell us that they continue to experience judgment, stigma and a lack of safety in their interactions with the RNC and that they need things to change,” reads a news release issued Monday by the St. John’s Status of Women Council.
Laura Winters, executive director of the St. John’s Status of Women Council, says the partnership was intended to improve relationships between the police and sex workers. She says that intention hasn’t been met.
“It hasn’t resulted in improved conditions for the people SHOP serves. So at this point we thought let's redirect our efforts towards supporting people in the sex industry — which is what SHOP does — and stop putting that effort into this relationship that really is not having fruitful outcomes for us,” said Winters.
Winters says it’s not about bad apples, it’s about the entire ecosystem within the police force.
“This issue is not at all about individual officers. It’s about a need for structural and cultural change at the RNC. A lot of the effort we put forward was in requesting meetings, requesting to offer training, creating opportunities for collaboration that went (without response).”
RNC Chief Joe Boland declined an interview, but issued a statement in response to the broken relationship.
“The RNC is entirely committed to protecting vulnerable people, and will continue our work with community partners to identify best practices. Our dedicated officers work hard every day to build relationships and break down barriers related to complex issues in our communities,” reads the statement.
“The RNC will remain focused on providing a service which maintains the public trust and confidence that is crucial to promoting safe and healthy communities.”
Winters says law enforcement is meant to uphold the laws of the day, yet laws against sex work only lead to disproportionate arrest and incarceration for sex workers, Indigenous, Black and people of colour, the 2SLGBTQI community, those struggling with mental-health issues, people living in poverty, and survivors of gender-based violence.
Winters says as long as sex work remains criminalized, the issues facing some of the most vulnerable members of society will persist.
“Stigma around sex work is a huge issue. Sex workers are, I would argue, the most stigmatized group in society. That stigma runs through many systems, but it's so very prevalent with policing because of the criminalized nature of sex work,” said Winters.
“We feel that as long as sex work is criminalized that SHOP and the RNC are fundamentally at odds with regard to how to support women and people in the sex industry. We do so from a harm-reduction, human rights-based approach. We need to see a shift from the RNC in that regard."