Chief of Police on Red Light District
Steffanie Petroni-Date for local2 sault ste. marie
September 25th, 2012 at 7:51am
On the business of sex trade work some women have made a conscious choice to enter the profession and others have been driven into the industry as a last resort to feed their children, to self-medicate or to keep a roof over their head –to name just a few barriers. Canadian citizens and international supporters (click here) have challenged: city decision makers to address the complex social and legal issues contiguous to sex trade work; and social agencies to step up services for sex workers inclusive of harm reduction strategies, access to health services and for those women wanting out of the business, exit strategies. However, after a blitz of street sex worker arrests in August 2012, the Sault Ste. Marie Police are taking most of the hits delivered by sex worker supporters around the world. Their actions have been under fire for violating the rights and privacy of these ladies and for falling short in recognizing the human condition that embroils this situation.
Sault Ste. Marie’s Chief of Police, Bob Davies, rejects such accusations. Davies asserts that local police are very aware of the life challenges that many sex workers confront on a daily basis and of the federal laws that regulate prostitution activities. Until August 2012, there had been zero arrests of street sex workers for two years. Over the last several months, dramatic spikes in complaints were received by police services from residents living in the downtown area and primarily on Albert St. East between Gore St. and Tancred St. where this activity is most visible.
Legislative responsibilities in the Police Services Act define policing’s primary focus by way of public safety and law enforcement. As Davies explains, these definitions leave very little room for interpretation. “We’re not blinded to the causes that force a woman to do this kind of work (street sex work). We’re getting a lot of complaints from the neighbours. I’ve gone to sit in their living rooms. There are several things happening there. Residents are fed up with condoms and syringes lying in their yard. Just the intrusiveness of street workers out on the sidewalk hollering and trying to wave cars over is very disruptive. One woman felt that she had the right to sit in her living room at night and not have to see that. And as she put it, and quite frankly she is right, solicitation is still against the law. We have a role in ensuring the rights for citizens to live in their neighbourhood without this kind of disruption.”
Sex worker advocates aren’t the only group on the backs of the police over this issue, downtown residents are clinging on too. Frustrated with the increased activity and the non-stop erosion of the downtown core, residents are holding police accountable for not eradicating the ‘problem’ on their streets. Equally frustrated, and with a sigh, Davies admits that the police are stuck between a rock and a hard place.
“There are some residents that think that enforcement is going to take care of the situation. From a police point of view and my obligation to uphold laws, that’s all I can really do, enforce the law. But I look at the effectiveness of that and it’s not really a deterrent. When we arrest a lot of the street workers it is fairly common to recognize medical issues, mental health issues, poverty and lack of education. There are so many risk factors that are obvious as to why we are dealing with this type of situation. Therein lays the challenge with trying to manage this issue. If the risk factors aren’t addressed then nothing is going to change.”
The most heated area of contention between sex worker supporters and local authorities is the procedure of police releasing the names and addresses of women arrested for street solicitation. Advocates for sex worker rights are concerned that when this information is publicly shared that risk to physical safety and likelihood to experience life-long stigmatization increases for these women as well as their children and families. When asked about the necessity to release the names and addresses of women arrested for solicitation to the media, Davies admits that he can make the decision to stop this practice. Davies justifies the local policy to disclose such information as a public right to freedom of information based on provincial and federal legislation. When questioned about the relevancy regarding concerns that this policy puts women in harm’s way Davies believes this is a moot point.
“The names of individuals charged with crimes, including individuals charged with the crime of communicating with sex trade workers for the purpose of prostitution are published. The workers have many personal challenges to overcome in order to escape a life of street prostitution but in my view the stigma attached to them by publishing their name does not compare to all the personal risk factors that have to be addressed first.”
Provisions in the Canadian Criminal Code around running a bawdy house and living on the avails of prostitution were struck down as unconstitutional and a violation of human rights on March 26th, 2012 by the Ontario Court of Appeal. At this time the Ontario Court of Appeal also deemed that Section 213 of the Criminal Code pertaining to communicating for the purposes of prostitution in non-violation of the prostitute’s rights. At this time approval to challenge this decision as a constitutional violation has been submitted by the Federal government. If successful this ruling will be appealed before the Supreme Court of Canada.
Proponents of striking down Section 213 argue that legalizing a person’s right to communicate for the purposes of prostitution increases the safety of street sex workers. Women would be able to take their time in screening their customers and could report to their safety networks as to their whereabouts and vehicle information. Supporters also emphasize current laws that make communicating in public illegal drive street sex workers further into the shadows thereby multiplying their risk to safety.
Chief Davies provides a very different perspective on Section 213 of the Criminal Code. “When you look at the sections being reviewed by the appeal courts they pertain to the safety of street workers. And soliciting on the street does put women at greater risk because they don’t have time to canvass their customers. I think that’s one reason why it isn’t being reviewed. Street workers will always be at greater risk to harm whether legal or not. With respect to living off the avails of prostitution and having a bawdy house, there are certain structures that exist to keep a woman safer. There is no question in my mind that personal security risks for women working in brothels are a lot lower.”
On a somewhat more reflective note Davies shares his own observations regarding the dehumanizing attitude towards the women arrested. References such as ‘the whores on gore’, ‘purse snatchers’, ‘low-life’s’ and ‘scumbags’ are a few of the milder labels slapped on these ladies by local residents. Davies cites the need for greater education to challenge ill-informed attitudes and greater cohesion within the community to improve the quality of life for these women.
“It comes down to ignorance and a lack of understanding. People just don’t seem to totally appreciate what’s happening. Those are the same people that put the pressure on the police to do a ‘nice clean sweep and clean up the downtown’. A lot of people attribute this situation as a police problem. And certainly my position is that it does become a police problem but it’s not our total responsibility. There are a lot of social issues that have to be addressed before we see change and a lot of these changes don’t involve the police. We definitely have a role and a partnership in those changes but we have to tackle this as a community issue and the police are only one little piece of it.”
*If you are a former or current sex worker and would be interested in confidentially sharing your personal story or to connect to networks advocating for the rights and dignity of sex workers please contact firstname.lastname@example.org