The police’s approach to tackling prostitution has come under the national media spotlight of late as part of a wider debate about how society views sex work. In previous articles I looked at how West Yorkshire Police, along with most other forces, has chosen not to adopt elements of the ‘Merseyside Model’ which has been instrumental in helping Merseyside Police achieve a 67% conviction rate for crimes of rape against sex workers compared to a national average conviction rate for rape of just 6.5% (2010 data).
The policies and processes that individual police forces adopt, and the standards and behaviours that police leaders set for their officers are of course critical, but to understand the full picture it’s essential to look at what actually happens on the street on a day-to-day basis. Do the interactions between individual police officers and prostitutes working on the streets of West Yorkshire tend to make the working women safer, or do they put them in more danger? Do the interactions support an exit from the cycle of addiction and prostitution which is prevalent among women working on the streets?
To try and answer these questions, I requested interviews with all the support agencies which West Yorkshire Police told me they liaise with. The first of what I hope will be a short series of interviews is presented below. This interview is with Jackie Hird from the Leeds-based Joanna Project.
What is your relationship with West Yorkshire Police like?
We’ve established a good working relationship with WYP. We certainly don’t live in their pocket – but they know who we are, and we know who they are. We’ve built a closer relationship in recent times as Inspector Christopher Bowen (Holbeck Neighbourhood Operations Inspector) has taken over. He’s been very proactive in contacting us. We have a planning application in at the moment for a support centre in Holbeck and the police have been very supportive of that.
I’ve been here for 4 years and I’ve seen a definite change in attitude, at least in the senior officers. A couple of years ago I attended a meeting hosted by the police and they were making statements there about needing to see the women as victims and looking at the bigger picture, recognising they have multiple needs and that policing alone will not solve things. This meeting was the beginning of the formation of the strategy called Responding to Prostitution in Leeds: A Partnership Strategy. I know there are working women who will tell stories about encountering officers who are less than helpful, but it can take time for attitudes to filter down. I don’t think you’ll get every officer signing up to that.
We do an evening outreach and sometimes officers will come across who don’t recognise us – by and large, once they find out who we are and what we’re doing, they’re respectful of our activities.
What interactions do you have with the police?
We are part of the Ugly Mugs scheme so we would use that if there are any ‘dodgy punter’ type allegations. The police will contact us too. For example, there was recently an incident of rape, so the police alerted us to that and said if anyone had any information to please let them know. They said to put the word out that they were taking the incident seriously. They do make efforts. There’s been an issue ongoing for a while where a particular person has been a cause for concern. Different agencies, including the police, have met to try and resolve the situation. We wouldn’t give information to the police about a client unless it was for their safety, or if someone was missing, or if they’d given their permission to be discussed at a multi-agency meeting to try and help them in some way, for example with exit strategies. We don’t get involved in the police’s duty to uphold the law.
How good are WYP at encouraging your clients to report crimes and to see them through to convictions?
It’s quite difficult to get our clients to report crime and to take it the distance through to conviction. They see violence as an occupational hazard. The women we work with are street sex workers, which is quite different to many indoor sex workers. All the women we support have huge addiction issues. For them, it’s a cycle of working, using, working, using. They’re out there driven by their habit. So things like ‘reporting crime’ can be very low on their priority list. They might think ‘it’s awful what’s happened to me but I still need to work and score.’ I know sometimes there have been efforts made by the police to get women to follow through on statements, but it’s not always where the women are at. Our experience is more that the problem is when the case gets to court. Juries and magistrates etc. don’t see the women as they should – as credible witnesses. They think ‘well, what were you doing out there anyway’.
The women themselves may not see a more enlightened approach from the police. They might not see the bigger picture – they sometimes just see themselves as ‘being moved on’, ‘being lifted’, ‘being ASBO’d’. They don’t trust the police.
Have you heard of West Yorkshire Police’s “Operation Topaz”?
No, I’ve not heard of that.
What about your work to change the community’s view of prostitution – is that done in conjunction with the police?
It’s a hot topic at the moment because of this planning application.
The reason we didn’t go public about our proposal and have lots of meetings is because we’re aware lots of residents don’t want their area (Holbeck) trumpeted as a red light area and we were trying to respect that. Ironically, the challenge from some (but definitely not all) residents has thrust this in to the spotlight.
Holbeck is trying to rehabilitate its image. But sadly the reality is that it is where women are working. So being respectful of residents we didn’t make a big fuss about our building. And we know it will have absolutely no impact on the residents. It’s a very small building near an industrial estate – it’s not in the residential area. It’s not going to look any different apart from some clean curtains in the building. All anyone might possibly see is an occasional woman knocking on the door and being let in. We need the women to know where we are but we won’t be putting a big sign on the front of the building saying “working girls here” or anything like that! All people will see is the building that is there now. To suggest it will attract women in to the area is a fundamental misunderstanding of what drives women to work as street prostitutes. They don’t come here because we give them a bun and a cup of tea. We’ve actually been working in Holbeck for the last 10 years. This new proposal is just a small extension to our existing work. But somehow it’s become very visible and contentious which is frustrating.
I have invited different representatives of residents groups to meet with me and we have had some productive meetings. But I think when you’re involved in an issue like prostitution you become a kind of lightning conductor for all the anger about that issue, but I cannot solve it myself. I did not cause it. I’m just suggesting we could be a small part of a solution.
The Joanna Project and the police recognise each other’s aims – theirs is to uphold the law, ours is to help women exit prostitution – we both have an important part to play. One of the points I try to make to residents is that, because the women’s addictions are so strong, the police are not a deterrent from what they do. The addiction that drives them is much stronger than the fear of being caught by the police. The need to feed the addiction, which isn’t about pleasure but about stopping the pain, is the driver – that’s their rationale. Fear of getting an ASBO is nothing in comparison. But that can be hard for members of the public to understand.
Where are you in the application process for your outreach centre?
The planning officers have approved our proposal, but a councillor has requested that it go to a panel – this was originally going to be on the 6th March but has been deferred to 3rd April. So we wait for the councillors to decide at the planning meeting. All the objections and support for the scheme are public access.
Have you heard of the ‘Merseyside Model’ in the Association of Chief Police Officers guidance which has led to a big increase in conviction rates for crimes against sex workers?
Not heard of the ACPO guidance specifically but I would think that if Independent Sexual Violence Advisors are seen as being anything to do with the police then our clients won’t trust them. In terms of encouraging people to report crime and assist with that, that is something the voluntary sector would do in Leeds. We get the message across that just because you’re a working woman does not mean you should accept violence. We give that message strongly – it is not “OK”.
I don’t know enough about the hate crimes approach but it sounds like a very sensible idea. I think it’s the sort of thing which needs a council and political will to back it, not just the police will. I don’t know whether the political will is there or not.
Are more fundamental changes in law, politics or society needed to help tackle this issue?
I think society has this idea that these women just wake up one day and think “I’ll go and sell my body”. There isn’t the acknowledgement that it was a long and difficult journey to where these women are today. It very commonly started in the care system, in parental abuse, in neglect. A huge number of women will have been sexually abused as children. Society let these women down way back in their journey. Maybe their own parents were addicts. How do we get society to take responsibility for these people who have been damaged and let down in the past? Very commonly we hear of heroin addictions starting in the early teens. But when we see them later on in street prostitution people say “It’s all their fault” and that they “need to shape up”. Many of them won’t have completed secondary school – they often don’t have basic life skills. It’s OK helping women exit prostitution, but it’s naive to then expect them to be able to get a house and manage money, rent, bills etc when they’ve never done that before. Some have no supportive relationships because the only people they know are sex workers and other addicts. The journey to begin to build a positive life from that starting point is incredibly hard. There is very little acknowledgement of those issues. It’s a much bigger picture than just a woman saying “I’m going to take crack and heroin”.
Have Hilary Benn MP and local councillors come out in support of your outreach project?
Hilary Benn came to visit us a little while ago to learn of our plans. He certainly seemed supportive of them.
West Yorkshire Police’s Operation Topaz and the Association of Chief Police Officers 2011 Guidance for Policing Prostitution and Sexual Exploitation are discussed in this article.