Move followed announcement of ‘pattern’ in homicides
Ottawa police have not conducted any prostitution sweeps since Chief Vern White’s announced in December that a “pattern” had been identified in a number of unsolved murders of prostitutes.
Since Dec. 9, when White warned the city’s sex workers to take precautions because of a potential threat – police have been loath to use the word “serial killer,” but the link between killings is ominous – advocacy groups have been calling for a moratorium on prostitution sweeps.
As long as sex workers have to worry about getting arrested, the groups maintain, they cannot afford to take safety precautions, such as working in groups, staying in well-lit areas and taking time to assess potential clients before getting into vehicles.
On Wednesday, six community groups issued a release criticizing Ottawa police for failing to enact a moratorium.
Emily Symons, chair of one of the groups, called POWER (Prostitutes Ottawa-Gatineau, Work, Educate and Resist), said the decision “sends a clear message to streetbased sex workers that their lives and physical safety are not a priority.”
Yet, while police won’t agree to an outright ban on sweeps, in practical terms they have been consciously moving away from that practice, according to the inspector in charge of such operations in the city’s central district.
Insp. Uday Jaswal said the police had been working actively on alternative policing approaches since White’s announcement.
Jaswal said a 2010 court ruling had already changed the Ottawa police practice of conducting routine prostitution sweeps.
Since that ruling, Jaswal said, the sweeps, previously done on a monthly basis, had become much less frequent and were only done in response to specific concerns identified in a given neighbourhood. Since the chief’s announcement, however, the police service has made an even greater effort to shift away from the sweeps.
In the past, Jaswal said, sweeps were thought of not only as a way of addressing community concerns about street prostitution and associated criminal activity, but also as an opportunity to try to connect the sex trade workers with assistance they might need after being arrested. He also said that, with the help of community resources, police were trying to accomplish that latter goal, as much as possible, without arrests.
Jaswal also said Ottawa police had been developing a mechanism for “safe reporting,” through which sex workers could report attacks against them without having to fear that they would be charged if they incriminated themselves while making the report. Such a program exists in Montreal, and Ottawa police are starting to use it now. Jaswal gave credit to POWER for suggesting the idea.
At the same time, Jaswal said, police need to retain the option of using sweeps.
“There may be a time when enforcement is required.”
Symons, the POWER chair, said that was not good enough and the sex trade workers needed a declaration that there would be no sweeps “until the predator is caught and convicted. As long as the threat is there, we’ve accomplished nothing.”
The CBC Ottawa website reported that Ottawa police had sought assistance from the Ontario Provincial Police to create a profile of the person responsible for the unsolved sex worker killings.
Supt. Ty Cameron of the Ottawa police would not comment on the report. “We are not releasing anything about the investigation,” he said.