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Three weeks, three hooker sweeps

Police step up blitzes

In an ongoing campaign that targets street-level sex workers, Ottawa police conducted prostitution sweeps for three consecutive weeks in November, arresting a total of 56 people.

The latest arrests represent a change of tactics for the police. Previously, a specialized street crimes unit authored most of the sweeps, working in so-called “lure and catch” teams with an officer posing as a sex worker or john.

For the last two years, the street crimes unit has conducted two-day blitzes roughly once a month. But after three sweeps in November — some carried out by neighbourhood officers — it appears that the Ottawa Police Service is stepping up its war on sex work.

On Nov 18 and 19, neighbourhood officers conducted a weekend roundup in the Carlington area, arresting five women and six men. Five of the six men were released through pre-charge diversion (john school).

A week earlier, police executed an undercover operation in Centretown, Vanier and Carlington. During this operation — the second of the two sweeps — police arrested 34 people: 17 women and 17 men.

The 17 women arrested were charged with prostitution-related offences, mischief and breach of conditions. Of the 17 men arrested, eight were charged with prostitution and drug offences and nine were released on pre-charge diversion.

A week before that, on Nov 4 and 6, police arrested seven women and four men in a blitz in Lowertown and Vanier.

In the recent attempt to disrupt  street-level prostitution, most of the women were arrested on solicitation charges, although some were arrested for breach of conditions — a re-occurring indictment that is related to previous prostitution convictions.

“Usually they are arrested for soliciting,” says Frank D’Aoust of Ottawa Police Services. “Once we find out their name, we verify them, and we find out [if] they are breaching conditions such as curfews, failing to keep the peace, failing to remain out of a specific boundary.”

Bryonie Baxter is the executive director of the Elizabeth Fry Society of Ottawa, a group that advocates for women in prison. She says that women are initially picked up on communicating charges but are detained afterwards, often repeatedly, for breaching conditions.

“Ottawa has one of the highest breach charges in the province of Ontario,” says Baxter. “They are returned to court and because they are breaching court conditions and they are sent to the detention centre on those breach conditions.”

When women are released, it is usually with boundary conditions called “red zoning” which prohibit them from frequenting certain areas. These often include areas where the women can access services like child-care, rehabilitation programs and, in some cases, shelter.

Frédérique Chabot is the women’s outreach coordinator of the AIDS Committee of Ottawa.

“You can’t go to agencies,” says Chabot. “All the agencies are in the red zones. So if you are caught in those sweeps, you are red zoned, you get charged, you get probation and for a year you are not allowed to go to the Shepherd to sleep, you are not allowed to go to the food bank — you are not allowed to go anywhere.”

Targeting street-level prostitutes is the stated goal of several community associations. Both the Hintonburg and Vanier community associations have a mandate to clear street-level sex workers from the area.

Vanier, one of the most frequent sites of the sweeps, has an active community association called Together for Vanier. It has a drug and prostitution committee and, on its website, advises community members to report suspected prostitutes and johns to the police.