Canada: Abuse standard treatment: sex workers

Concern Over Police Conduct; Advocacy group to ask rights commission to
conduct inquiry into claims against police

By Don Butler, Ottawa Citizen
December 1, 2010

Ottawa police are facing new allegations of misconduct, this time toward the city’s sex workers.

A report to be released today by Prostitutes of Ottawa-Gatineau Work, Educate and Resist (POWER) claims that city police officers regularly assault, abuse and harass prostitutes and other sex workers.

A few of the sex workers interviewed said they’d even been strip-searched by officers in public areas.

The findings have prompted POWER, a sex-worker-led advocacy organization, to ask the Ontario Human Rights Commission to conduct a public inquiry into the Ottawa police’s “systemic discrimination” against sex workers.

In an 11-page letter to the rights commission, POWER says the Ottawa 7Police Service discriminates against sex workers on three prohibited grounds — sex, ethnicity and “perceived disability.”

This conduct, it asserts, “creates tremendous physical and emotional harm” to individual sex workers and fosters “prejudicial and harmful stereotypes” within the community at large.

The release of the report and the call for a public inquiry comes as city police are facing heavy criticism for the abuse and unlawful strip search of Stacy Bonds as well as other incidents of alleged misconduct.

Chris Bruckert, a criminologist at the University of Ottawa who co-authored the report, said Bonds’ experience “sounds a lot like what we’ve been hearing from streetbased sex workers.”

The report is based on interviews with 43 sex workers — 34 women, seven men and two transgender females — done between April 2009 and February 2010.

Twenty-seven were streetbased workers. The rest mostly worked as escorts in massage parlours.

The report conceals their identities, making their accounts of police mistreatment impossible to verify.

But Bruckert said she was “absolutely confident” their stories were reliable.

While a few sex workers said their experience with police was positive, street-based workers overwhelmingly reported negative encounters.

In fact, 15 identified the police as their main challenge, an assessment based not on their law enforcement activities, but on their abuse of power, the report says.

“What stood out here was the violence from police,” Bruckert said. “That’s what they’re scared of.”

The report says 16 of the street-based workers said they’d experienced police violence. One was allegedly beaten so badly by four officers that she lost sight in one eye. Another said police broke her arm.

Others accused the police of sexual misconduct. One said an undercover officer grabbed her hand and “forcefully put it on his crotch.” Another spoke of an officer who had sex with a number of prostitutes.

Three of the workers said they’d been strip-searched on public streets, including by male officers. A number said they’d been sexually assaulted while under arrest. One said she was left to sit, naked, in a cell for 24 hours.

The report also reports incidences of illegal confinement, confiscation of property such as sleeping bags and condoms, and “starlight tours” — where police detain people, drive them to the country or suburbs and leave them there.

Insp. Tyrus Cameron, who oversees policing and prostitution enforcement in the downtown core, said the Ottawa Police Service would not consider any of this conduct appropriate.

Asked about public strip searches, Cameron replied: “It’s certainly not any practice that we would conduct.” Similarly, violence against sex workers is unacceptable, he said.

He encouraged sex workers who believe they’ve been abused by officers to file complaints. “We will take any complaints about our officers’ conduct seriously,” he said. But most workers don’t see that as a viable option, according to the report.

It says sex workers’ most common complaint is harassment by police when they are clearly not soliciting clients.

All the street-based workers spoke of police disrespect, and more than two-thirds recounted incidents of verbal misconduct, the report says.

Many complained about uniformed officers “calling them out” in public, something the report describes as “public shaming rituals.”

Cameron said the force doesn’t condone rude behaviour. But most street prostitutes are addicts, he said. “People under the influence don’t always behave rationally. When we’re arresting people who are high, things don’t always go according to Hoyle. But our expectation is our officers will treat everybody with respect.”

He agreed that officers routinely approach known prostitutes on the street to ask what they are doing.

“We’re stopping them, talking to them,” Cameron said. “Are we trying to dissuade people from going to them? Absolutely. We make no apologies for that.”

The report says discrimination against sex workers by the police and public is a product of “whore-phobia,” which casts them as dirty, immoral and hyper-sexualized people forced into sex work by addictions or mental illness. The police, the report notes, are in a position of power.

“When they abuse that power and operate in relation to their own or societal biases and prejudices, the consequences for sex workers can be severe.”

But in targeting street prostitutes, Cameron said, police are only responding to demands from communities affected by prostitution, such as Hintonburg and Vanier.
© Copyright (c) The Ottawa Citizen


1 Comment

  1. […] protect us from “crime”.  But not, of course, crime perpetrated by the police, as discussed in this article on the SWOP Las Vegas website: A report to be released today by Prostitutes of Ottawa-Gatineau […]

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