Tactic puts women at greater risk, advocate group says
A coalition representing local sex trade workers is urging Ottawa police to stop cracking down on prostitutes in monthly sting operations.
The group’s open letter to police was sent in response to the warning Chief Vern White issued in December, saying investigators had detected a pattern in the deaths of a number of sex trade workers. The police also issued a safety advisory, advising sex workers to work in teams and to avoid isolated areas.
But the coalition, which is made up of six local groups, says this advice only exposes sex workers as obvious targets for arrest. They’re especially afraid of being caught in a street sweep, an undercover operation where officers start conversations with prostitutes, only to arrest them once an offer of sex for money is made.
“I don’t think that the police sweeps protect women at all,” said Karin Galldin of Galldin LLP, a feminist legal firm that is representing the groups. “And given that there’s an identified threat of a predator who has taken six lives … it’s not enough for the police to say, ‘Hey look, we’re going to continue to criminalize you, we’re not going to change our operational plan.'”
Frederique ‘Fred’ Chabot, a member of Prostitutes Ottawa-Gatineau Work, Educate and Resist, said street sweeps are a form of “proactive policing,” as they purposely go after sex workers who make their living by working on the streets. Chabot’s group was one of the six that drafted the letter.
She said sweeps just create an environment where sex trade workers are afraid to go to the police, even if they are assaulted. Chabot added that sex workers have identified police as their No. 1 challenge, ahead of clients, financial need and community violence.
Galldin said another problem is that police seem to prioritize communities over sex workers. She said community residents have complained about sex workers in their areas, leading police to put the residents’ needs ahead of sex workers’ lives. Galldin said she finds that unacceptable.
“We want a commitment from the police to say, ‘We have received in the past complaints from the community around nuisance, around garbage on the street, but guess what, women are dying. And we’re going to prioritize the lives of those women …'” she said. In the letter, the groups also hinted at the possibility of legal action against the police if more sex workers are harmed, saying the police could be considered “negligent” in their responsibility to protect them. They asked the police for a response by Jan. 27. Neither Galldin nor Chabot could confirm whether going to court would be their next step, but Chabot said they were “exploring the options.”
Chief White, interviewed before the Police Services Board Monday night, said he would sit down and talk with the group.
“We’ll be arranging meetings with the group,” he said. “It will be a good discussion. I look forward to the meeting with them. I need to do more research on what they are saying could happen. But realistically, we had a very open dialogue after Dec. 9 with the representatives and those meetings will continue. But I certainly won’t negotiate it through the media.”