Police accused of ‘breaking law’ to target sex workers with ‘bullying and intimidating tactics’

Exclusive: ‘They like to have the power, especially if they know the girl is scared then they have the upper hand,’ says sex worker

Maya Oppenheim
Women’s Correspondent
Saturday 23 April 2022 20:07 BST
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<p>Sex workers and their supporters participate in a demonstration in Soho, London</p>

Sex workers and their supporters participate in a demonstration in Soho, London

Police officers have been accused of ignoring the law in order to “bully, harass and intimidate” sex workers.

Two letters, sent to police by campaigners and shared exclusively with The Independent, accuse officers of refusing to show warrant cards before raiding sex workers’ premises and declining to identify themselves.

The letters, written by Niki Adams, of the English Collective of Prostitutes, a leading campaign group that supports sex workers, outline cases of sex workers who allege they have been intimidated by police.

In one letter sent to the Joint Professional Standards Department of the Norfolk Constabulary, she claims police entered a sex worker’s premises without showing a warrant.

The officers are alleged to have shouted that “prostitution was illegal in the UK, told her that she was mentally ill, searched the flat and took her phones and a personal book containing her email address, passwords and phone numbers”.

Ms Adams also claims officers took photos of the woman, who she refers to as “Ms B”, and removed towels from the premises claiming they needed to check them for semen – a move the campaigner labelled “intrusive and humiliating”.

“After this aggressive and unreasonable behaviour officers then bizarrely asked Ms B if she was trafficked,” Ms Adams wrote. “If the police believed that there was a possibility that Ms B was trafficked, how do they justify shouting at her and treating her like a suspect?”

The campaigner noted that Ms B was in the premises alone so was not acting illegally.

While it is not illegal for individuals to buy or sell sex in the UK, soliciting, working on the street, sex workers banding together as a group and prostitutes advertising themselves is illegal.

“If Ms B was under suspicion for a criminal offence and the police were considering arresting her, she should have been cautioned. She was not,” Ms Adams adds.

“If Ms B was not suspected of a crime why did police confiscate her property? As we understand it, this is only justified if police have reasonable grounds to believe that the items have been obtained illegally or are evidence in relation to an offence. What offence was Ms B suspected of? We can also see no justification for asking for her email address passwords.”

The campaigner argued the incident went against guidelines set out by the National Police Chief Council, which states officers should not “start from a position that treats sex workers as criminals simply for being sex workers or engaging in practices that have been undertaken to increase their own personal safety, such as, ‘managing or keeping brothels’”.

Ms Adams said Ms B was left so “paranoid” by the encounter she “couldn’t stay in her home, couldn’t think properly, [and] couldn't eat or sleep”.

“She spent three nights on the streets in central London, considered taking her life and contacted the Samaritans,” Ms Adams added. “She would like to emphasise that she hasn’t done anything wrong and is just trying to survive under very difficult financial circumstances.”

Sarah*, a sex worker for 20 years, told The Independent she had also faced hostile and aggressive treatment from police.

The 42-year-old said a recent incident involving Southend police officers had left a woman she works with shaken, distressed and struggling to sleep.

Ms Adams raised her concerns about the woman’s treatment with Essex Police.

“Vulnerable women are being harassed and threatened by police officers,” her letter, sent to the Southend police station on 23 March, states. “Police officers have visited this house twice in the last two months. On both occasions, they arrived without a warrant and would not identify themselves. We cannot believe this is legal.”

Once, police smashed the door down, there were 20 of them. They can use bullying and intimidating tactics to scare you. They like to have the power

Sarah

The letter adds: “These threats and abusive visits must stop. Women at the premises are distraught and traumatised. They are scared of the police and this means that they would not report any violent or exploitative situation they face.”

Discussing her own dealings with police, Sarah said in half of her encounters over two decades, officers were aggressive and intimidating.

“I have seen both sides,” she added. “Once, police smashed the door down, there were 20 of them.

“They can use bullying and intimidating tactics to scare you. They like to have the power, especially if they know the girl is scared, then they have the upper hand.”

Ms Adams told The Independent she believed officers were ramping up raids and unjustly adopting increasingly hostile tactics in the wake of modern slavery legislation introduced in 2015.

“The Modern Slavery Act meant police got funding to tackle modern slavery. One way to justify budgets is to show they’re raiding sex worker premises,” she said.

“It is just an excuse and justification for them to raid. The public would be outraged. It is scandalous.”

She argued police were “setting themselves up” as the “enemies” of sex workers, adding that if women were not comfortable reporting violent incidents, violent men would be “left to attack again”.

“This is having a massive impact on women – they are terrified and they are being terrorised by the police raids and it means they don’t feel able to come forward and report any violent, exploitative or abusive situations,” said Ms Adams.

A spokesperson for Essex Police told The Independent its records showed Southend police officers visited the premises detailed in Ms Adams’s letter on 14 March, and they did not need a warrant as they were carrying out a routine welfare check.

“They were invited inside to speak to the two women present,” the spokesperson added. “After checking on the worker present, and conducting a safeguarding interview, they had reason to believe an offence may have been committed.

“One of the women was invited for a voluntary interview, which is to be at her convenience, on suspicion of the offence of managing and keeping a brothel.”

Essex Police said no threats were made to the woman, with the spokesperson adding that officers were obliged to implement measures to stop “vulnerable people from being exploited” and “investigate thoroughly” if they think it is occurring.

In response to criticism of its officers, a spokesperson for Norfolk Police said: “I can confirm we’ve received a third-party report in relation to this matter and await further information before this can be progressed further.”

*Name has been changed to protect identity

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