VANCOUVER - Sex workers must be able to come forward with allegations of abuse without worrying about whether police will arrest them on unrelated, outstanding warrants, the public inquiry into the Robert Pickton case has heard.
Several presenters at a series of policy forums examining how police should treat sex workers have raised concerns that officers are using minor, nuisance-related charges to ticket vulnerable women in Vancouver's Downtown Eastside.
If those small tickets lead to warrants because women fail to appear in court to deal with them, they will be reluctant to come forward if they are victimized, the inquiry heard Thursday.
"It's extremely endangering for them to have warrants," said Ann Livingston of the Vancouver Area Network of Drug Users .
"Police should stop ticketing for minor offences such as street vending and institute a policy whereby police waive prosecution for outstanding warrants when victims or witnesses are reporting violent crime."
The Vancouver Police Department introduced a draft policy earlier this year that directs officers to look at prostitution-related charges as a last resort when dealing with sex workers.
The force has pointed to statistics that show only three women have been arrested and charged with communicating for the purpose of prostitution since 2007. Charges were stayed in two of those cases, and the third ended in a conditional discharge.
But the inquiry has heard officers are still issuing violation tickets to sex workers for offences such as jaywalking, street vending and spitting on the sidewalk.
Others find themselves facing charges related to drugs or breaching bail conditions that would also make them wary of approaching a police officer who might run their name through a criminal database, the inquiry has heard.
"A lot of times, the reason these girls are not reporting violent crimes is because they're afraid when they're in there, they're going to get arrested for spitting on the sidewalk or peeing in an alley they did a few months before," said Lori-Ann Ellis, whose sister-in-law Cara Ellis's remains were found on Pickton's farm.
"I think those need to be put aside," she told the inquiry. "Reporting of a violent crime and getting a violent offender off the street is much more important than getting the cuffs on some girl."
Earlier in the week, Oppal suggested he, too, thought police shouldn't be worrying about warrants if a sex worker comes forward to report abuse.
"I don't think anyone is suggesting that there should be a blanket amnesty for warrants, but some common sense needs to prevail where a woman is a victim of violence and she's reluctant to go to the police because she's breached a condition," Oppal told the forums on Tuesday.
On Thursday, Insp. Mario Giardini said officers can and should use discretion in such cases, but he said there need to be provincewide standards to ensure all police forces are working under the same rules.
"My concern is we can't have a haphazard approach, where I as a police officer in Vancouver employ discretion and somebody goes to New Westminster or to Burnaby, and that officer doesn't," Giardini said.
"We need a provincial standard, we need it entrenched in legislation, so that we have the same approach, whether it's in Prince George or Vancouver or Richmond."
Oppal replied by saying such standards would make "eminent sense."
Oppal is spending two weeks outside of the inquiry's usual venue of a Federal Court for hearings in a library meeting room where sex workers, community groups and police officers have been invited to make presentations. The policy forums are focusing on topics including sex worker safety, communication between police and the public, and police accountability.
The inquiry began last fall and has been examining why Vancouver police and the RCMP failed to catch Pickton as he murdered sex workers from Vancouver's Downtown Eastside.
The policy forums and formal testimony wrap up at the end of the month. Oppal's final report is due June 30.
Pickton was arrested in 2002. He was later convicted of six counts of second-degree murder, but the remains or DNA of 33 women were found on his farm and he once boasted to an undercover police officer that he killed 49 women.