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Bad date project aims to make sex work safer

Good cop, bad cop

DATE LINE. The Toronto Police Services bad date campaign encourages sex workers to "help us help you."

A new project of the Toronto Police Service’s Sex Crimes Unit is looking to help keep sex workers safe by gathering information about “bad dates,” even as other police departments are going after the sex workers themselves.

“Sex workers were not reporting sexual assaults against them,” says Const Jackie O’Keefe, liaison officer for the queer community. O’Keefe has been working part-time with Det Wendy Leaver of the Sex Crimes Unit on the bad date pilot project.

“We developed the (416) 808-0000 anonymous tip line so they could anonymously report and avoid any formal reporting which would identify them and have to bring them through the process one normally has to go through,” says O’Keefe.

Signs posted in areas including around the tranny stroll at Homewood and Maitland are asking sex workers to report violence perpetrated against them. O’Keefe says the tip line has received approximately 40 calls since the project was launched in late April.

“We receive the info almost always anonymously from the victim and from third parties, and sometimes a social worker will call with permission on behalf of the victim.

“The beauty of this project is that we are also gathering a great deal of intelligence or information on some of these perpetrators, like licence plate [numbers] and car descriptions, names and cell phones numbers, client descriptions and disturbing behaviour…. We hope it will develop into sex workers being able to press charges.”

Monica Forrester, a trans sex work activist and outreach worker for the Meal Trans program at the 519 Community Centre, says the project is a good first step.

“The police have come in to talk with the girls about the bad date project,” says Forrester. “The anonymous part was very important for the girls because they don’t want to go through the court system.

“The exciting part of it for me is that it has created awareness and girls realize they have some rights. It shows the other cops that they’ve got to step up to the plate and take these situations seriously.”

One of the original members of the LGBT [lesbian, gay, bisexual, trans] Police Liaison Committee, Forrester says some sex workers would rather deal with a problem themselves than go to the cops.

“A lot of cops look at sex workers as trash…. All these complaints, girls being viciously assaulted and no arrests and nothing being done. One girl that I know was stabbed and she gave them a licence [number] and description and nothing was done…. She felt they thought it was her fault.”

Of course, the fact that sex workers also deal with cops who are trying to move them off the street doesn’t help.

“When residents start complaining the police do a sweep…. Residents complain about the noise and too much activity,” says Forrester. “The police will pick you up and give you conditions like you can’t work on Jarvis as far as the Esplanade…. That’s their way to minimize the visibility of sex workers.

“It’s going to be harder now because of the new school going up on Sherbourne and the new condos. They’re trying to push the girls out of that area. Police have been warning girls in the last year and a half. I think they’re going to push the girls on to Sherbourne and Gerrard, to a lower income and more destructive area.”

O’Keefe says she understands that police sweeps make it difficult to build trust between sex workers and other cops, but explains that if police receive 50 or more complaints about activity in a particular area then officers are expected to look into it and enforce the anti-soliciting laws.