Two years after police launched a one-year pilot program to target street-level sex workers — and months after police stopped announcing the arrests altogether — their operations continue. In September alone, 36 people, 27 women and nine men, were arrested on prostitution-related charges.
The two-day sweep took place in Centretown and Vanier on Sep 16 and 17, part of their monthly undercover operations.
A total of 77 criminal charges were laid, with most offenders charged with prostitution-related offences, mischief and breach of release conditions.
The September raids are part of a lure-and-catch blitz that police conduct once a month, according to Frank D’Aoust, a sergeant with the Ottawa Police Services.
In 2008, police regularly announced the results of the sweeps. Although the police stopped reporting them each month, they continue.
In an unusual move, last month’s raid was conducted by the Central West neighbourhood officers, not the usual street crimes unit, D’Aoust says.
Christine Bruckert, a professor at the University of Ottawa and a member of POWER (Prostitutes of Ottawa-Gatineau Work, Educate, Resist), says that prostitutes are a regular target of police efforts.
“It is part of an ongoing campaign by this police administration to target street sex workers, the vulnerable ones, and to systematically oppress them through the criminal justice system,” says Bruckert.
Police say they are just responding to complaints.
“We have a lot of complaints from the citizens living in the community because of the increase in traffic and [for the police] to address the problem, although it is a temporary solution,” says D’Aoust.
Gay activists and women’s groups have long argued that sexual self-determination should be a touchstone of our legal system. Many queer groups have made the connection between legal prohibitions against gay sex and sex work, including the Coalition for Lesbian and Gay Rights in Ontario, the Sex Laws Committee and the Committee to Abolish the 19th Century. Those groups call for the decriminalization of prostitution.
Until then, sex workers who are arrested can end up in a legal feedback loop. First time offenders may qualify for a pre-charge intervention scheme, john school, that requires the defendant to admit their offence, have no past criminal record or any other charges filed against them.
Others are given the choice to participate in post-charge intervention scheme, jane school, where they undergo a weekend rehabilitation given by different social service organizations. Those who do not qualify for any intervention are sent to jail.
Out of the nine males arrested last week, four were charged with prostitution offences and five were released on pre-charge diversion and will attend john school.
None of the women arrested qualified for pre-charge diversion. Some may opt for the post-intervention scheme but others will do time in jail — anything from 14 to 60 days for repeat offenders. When they are released, there are often stringent conditions, some of which make it difficult for women to look after their families or return to work.
Sex workers are often prohibited from returning to so-called “red zone areas,” which are often places where they have child care services, medical access, shelters, social networks and support services. That means that sex workers are pushed into unsafe neighbourhoods — or they risk breaking the conditions of their release, which could land them back in front of a judge.
“People use strategies to try and avoid arrest by the police. Those strategies also may help them avoid oppression, but they also make them more vulnerable,” says Bruckert. “Working in less well lit areas, they are more vulnerable to predators. The police don’t see them but of course no one else does either.”