How police budget cuts are hampering a crack down on Hackney’s kerb crawlers
- Credit: Photo: Catherine Davison
In the second part of our series on prostitution in the west of the borough, Emma Bartholomew focuses on the men who pay women for sex, why it’s so difficult to prove what they’re up to, and how police cuts are slowing their detection.
“I’ve had men in tears because they ‘fessed up to their partners what they have done, because they couldn’t live with the guilt,” says Bianca Rembrandt.
Bianca runs a course for men who have been caught kerb crawling or soliciting sex in public.
“Some of these men are married and they have children. Happily married – I’m not kidding you. They say: ‘My wife is a queen. Why did I think I would chance it?’”
The Gazette is out on “vice patrol” with Bianca, from the council’s anti-social behaviour team, and Pc Tomas Curtis and PCSO Charlie Mottram – both from the Brownswood ward safer neighbourhood team.
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It is shocking to see so many women soliciting for sex in the streets. But we are more surprised by the number of men issued with cautions.
We have barely driven two minutes from their base in Blackstock Road in a people carrier when we stop so the officers can talk to a man and a woman standing at a bus stop.
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They can’t be sure whether they are offenders, but “everything else fitted the bill,” PCSO Mottram will say later.
“The first thing I asked him was: ‘Are you waiting for a bus?’,” he explains. “He said no. In the past, men that hang by bus stops in this area, not waiting for a bus – most of the time they are waiting for a girl.”
Police say there are very few pimps in the area, and the British-born women on the streets tend to work for themselves to support drug habits – meaning the man was more likely to be a punter than a trafficker.
Men can only be arrested if they are witnessed actually offering women money for sex. Arrests are usually made on sting ops where a female police officer acts as a decoy.
This situations we encounter are more ambiguous – and although Pc Curtis and PCSO Mottram suspect the four men stopped have been kerb crawling, they cannot be absolutely certain. All of them are issued with community protection orders and three are dispersed from the area.
One man we come across is lying slumped in his car with the window open outside a block of flats. Alarmingly he looks as though he might be dead.
“I’m 100 per cent certain he’s kerb crawling, and this is stereotypical,” says Pc Curtis after speaking to him. “He’s maybe there waiting for someone to come along. They’ll knock on his window and they’ll do it in the car.”
Another man is stopped with a sex worker police already know inside his car. “I had an argument with my baby’s mum. We didn’t do nothing. We were just listening to music actually,” he tells the officer.
Police records show he has been arrested several years previously for kerb crawling. A “section 59” is issued to him and his brand new Merc – meaning if it’s ever found being used for anti-social behaviour it will be crushed.
But some believe the cops aren’t doing enough. Neighbours in Arbor Court, off Queen Elizabeth’s Walk – where a woman was raped two years ago – have started circulating newsletters tallying up the number of sex trade incidents they’ve witnessed. In January, for example there were 28, some in the children’s playground.
One reason the figure is high might be the fact police can hardly ever afford to go out on sting ops in the wake of budget cuts. In an ideal world they’d like to do one a month; in reality they haven’t done a single one in 2017.
Dean, who lives in Arbor Court and used to be a special constable, thinks police should place more focus on the men. “A lot of the women have black and blue eyes and bruises because they have been hit,” he says. “People see these woman as criminals and blights on society, but really they are the victims. It bothers the elderly people, and people throw out condoms and kids around here pick anything up. But I feel more sorry for the women – I don’t care about the inconvenience or the noise because people should be asleep by then.”
Bianca tells us some men will come out at 7am for “a quick blow job before they go to work”, sometimes ending up propositioning girls who are on their way to school.
Cheap sex is not without risk. Some sex workers suffer from TB, hepatits, HIV, AIDS and body lice – and, as Bianca points out, are “unlikely to wash in between punters”, something she will highlight on the course she runs.
“Some of the men are very ashamed,” she says, “but they have to understand it’s a choice, not a mistake.”
The ‘Stop and Think’ programme
Men caught red-handed will be arrested. But if police are certain they meet the criteria and are not sex offenders, they are offered the chance to avoid the court system and pay £200 to attend the “Stop and Think” programme.
“If they hold their hands up and say, ‘I‘m so sorry,’ we can offer them a place on the course,” says Pc Curtis.
“It’s not a matter of writing your name on a register and Bianca has to be satisfied at the end of it they got something from it, and then we won’t prosecute them. It’s better to educate.”
The idea is to make them realise the consequences, not only for themselves but the wider community.
“You help them realise these people are human,” said Bianca.
“I will ask: ‘What kind of background do you think these women have come from?’ They might say sexual abuse, and I’ll say that’s a strong reality for a lot of these women, who have been physically sexually and emotionally abused. I ask: ‘How does it make you feel knowing you are dealing with someone who has had that past experience? Do you think the women still feel like they are being abused on a level or exploited?’”