Vice patrol: The cops who drive around west Hackney looking for sex workers – and what they do to help them
- Credit: Photo: Catherine Davison
Emma Bartholomew spent a night on “vice patrol” with police officers from Brownswood safer neighbourhood team. This week, we focus on the women selling sex. Next week, we will look at how the men who buy it are dealt with.
“At the time, I wanted to die. I wasn’t scared of dying and was praying for death, so I said: ‘Stab me. Put me out of my misery.’”
Susie, a sex worker, was recounting an incident four nights before, during which a man tried to attack her.
“He was very polite and forthcoming until we got around the corner and he started to pull my hair and take me down. I screamed: ‘You’re going to go to prison for rape for this.’ He said he would stab me and I said: ‘Just do it.’
“That’s how low I was at the time,” she said. “I was past it. I didn’t have my kids any more. You get so low sometimes you would rather die than live.”
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Luckily for Susie, passers-by scared off her assailant. It wasn’t the first time she had been attacked because of her sex work. And yet like many other vulnerable women she continues to put herself at risk to feed her heroin habit.
What’s shocking when the Gazette goes out with Pc Tomas Curtis and Pc Charlie Mottram from Hackney police’s vice team is just how entrenched the sex worker scene is in the north of Hackney.
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Tom and Charlie know at least 75 sex workers operating regularly within a four-road radius in Brownswood and Stamford Hill West wards, where the trade is said to date back as far as 150 years.
It seemed every corner we turn, Tom and Charlie would exclaim, “there’s Pamela,”, or “there’s Diane,” and pull over the van to chat, asking them to leave the area and handing leaflets with details of organisations that can help with addictions or finding accommodation.
Tom had got out of our people carrier to search a car park behind a block of flats off Queens Drive when he spotted Susie in car with a man.
“Susie, if you can get out, please, darling,” he told her, recognising her immediately.
“Am I in trouble?” she asked Charlie further down the pathway, away from the driver of the car.
“You’re not in trouble as long as you’re honest,” he reassured her. Honest she was, and explained how they were on their way to a cashpoint so the man could pay her – meaning he could not be arrested because money had not changed hands.
While prostitution is not illegal per se, soliciting in a public place and kerb crawling are. It has a big impact on the people who live here.
“There will be used condoms on their doorsteps, or people might be having sex on their doorstep, defecating, urinating, smoking crack, injecting heroin, sleeping in their bin sheds and having sex in their car parks like we just stopped,” Tom explained later.
“It’s getting the balance right between engagement with the girls – trying to build up a rapport to get information about horrible kerb crawlers or people who have attacked them – versus what the residents need.”
Many women are found to breach the section 35 dispersal orders they issue, yet in two years only two women have been arrested in Hackney for the offence – although others wanted for crimes like burglary or violence have sometimes been caught. They include Audrey, who we saw later that night, who threatened Tom and Charlie with an uncapped hypodermic needle when they tried to arrest her last month.
Susie was issued with a section 35 dispersal order – as was the man with her.
“Oh, god, is that absolutely necessary? Because I can’t leave right this second,” she said. “I know you’re doing the best for me, but it’s not for work,” she pleaded.
Susie insisted she was keen to turn her life around and expressed gratitude to Charlie for putting her in touch with an organisation that can help her get a methadone “script” (prescription), and accommodation in a hostel rather than the house she’s currently living, where others “exploit her for sex to get drugs”.
“When I’m on my methadone I won’t have to take heroin every night and do this,” she added, showing us photos of her children – who she saw the day before in the park. They were taken into care seven months ago. “I do look a bit skinny compared to them,” she said, “but they don’t care – they love me either way. It’s given me an incentive to see them.
“I haven’t been out for three nights because I bought methadone off somebody, so I know I can survive without it.”