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In the Booth with Ruth – Alex Bryce, Manager, National Ugly Mugs

Alex Bryce

How do you feel about the police?

Well, not long before becoming the manager of the National Ugly Mugs (NUM) Scheme I had a particularly bad experience with the police. My partner and I were wrongfully arrested, assaulted and then maliciously prosecuted. Until the CCTV footage was produced at the very last minute (the day of our trial), which completely confirmed our account of events and proved the police officers’ to be largely fabricated, we were faced with the prospect of it being our word against theirs in court – a particularly daunting position to be in. Thankfully, this has been resolved now but it did have a huge impact on our lives and certainly gave me an insight into how difficult it can be fighting the system. If anything, this made me more determined than ever to support sex workers in accessing the criminal justice system.

It might be a surprise that running the NUM Scheme and building partnerships with police has actually improved my opinion of the police as a whole. We still get reports of some officers not treating sex workers appropriately, but I have worked with officers at every level who are doing a great job and are a joy to work with. From my experience, they are in the majority. People like to use the apples in the barrel metaphor when talking about the police – my view from my personal and professional experience is that, as with any institution, there are bad and good apples throughout, but perhaps the barrel itself needs some reform to improve accountability by strengthening the IPPC for example.

Can I ask if you’ve had a crime or crimes committed against you?

I was mugged fairly recently and physically assaulted as a teenager. The physical assault was a racially motivated hate crime – I was walking home from the pub with a British Asian friend and we were attacked by three thugs. I have also experienced sexual assault twice.

Did you report the crimes to the police?

My first experience of sexual assault was when I was a teenager and I was too scared to report it to the police at the time. I wasn’t openly gay and wasn’t ready to ‘come out’ at the time and it would have been difficult to talk about what happened to me without my sexuality being revealed to friends and family. I also feared repercussions from the offender. I reported all the other incidents to the police.

How do you feel you were treated by the police?

My experiences of the police as a victim have varied considerably. The recent mugging was fairly minor, but the police took it seriously although they didn’t manage to catch the perpetrator in the end.

We called the police immediately after the racially motivated assault and they came fairly quickly. My friend and I were both full of cuts and bruises and pretty shook up, but we were asked on the spot if we wanted to make a formal statement. My friend had some initial reservations as the incident happened near to his house and he was scared of repercussions so he didn’t want to make a decision there and then – it was the middle of the night and we weren’t really in a fit state to be thinking seriously about anything. As a result, the police officers effectively gave us their contact details and drove off leaving us where the incident had happened, after midnight and in quite a state, which was a little strange. Once we had decided to press charges the police were fine and supported us through the court process and thankfully the offenders were found guilty.

With the sexual assault that I reported, I was treated very well and offered constant support. The only slight issue, which I found a little hard to accept as a victim, was having my mobile phone taken from me for evidence. I can understand why that may be helpful to an investigation, but it can also make a victim feel like they are being questioned or being treated with suspicion.

How do the people you know in the sex trade feel about the police? Are you able to expand on this with specific examples?

From my experience, views about the police in the sex industry can be quite varied. Many sex workers that we speak to are initially cautious about reporting, but often when we reassure them that we have a specific contact in a force who will take them seriously they are far more likely to want to engage. So, often the boundaries and the initial reluctance can be broken down by proactive work by police and effective partnerships.

But, as Rosie Campbell said in her interview, many sex workers don’t trust the police but there are also many who feel that they can access police services and report positive experiences of doing so.

What do you believe holds people in the sex trade back from reporting crimes committed against them to the police?

There are a whole host of reasons why a sex worker may be reluctant to report incidents to the police.

The sex work community is a very diverse one and some barriers may not be relevant to all sectors. For example, many street sex workers have fairly chaotic lifestyles and substance dependence and therefore the process of going to the station for a few hours to make a statement is not always a realistic option or a priority for them. In addition, immigration status, for example, can be a barrier to migrant sex workers.

The role of the police as both the protector of sex workers (particularly when they are the victims of crime) as well as the enforcers of legislation around prostitution can be problematic. Many sex workers have had bad experiences with the police and fear if they report an incident they won’t be taken seriously, they themselves will be investigated or if they’re working in a brothel or parlour that their workplace will be closed. There is also a need to challenge the view that crimes against sex workers are an occupational hazard.

How do you think the police view people in the sex trade? Do you think they take crimes committed against them seriously?

I wouldn’t want to generalise about the police as a whole in the same way that I wouldn’t want to generalise about sex workers as a whole. However, I can speak about my own experience and the majority of the police I engage with regularly see sex workers first as human beings who have the right to justice and protection. There are some exceptions to this but, although this is anecdotal, I do feel that since NUM launched reports of inappropriate police responses to sex workers, they are becoming less frequent.

How do you think the police should deal with crimes committed against people in the sex trade?

The first and most fundamental step is to treat sex workers as human beings and as victims and believe them – that should always be the starting point. The police are responsible for public protection and this does not exclude sex workers. It is often said by those providing frontline support to sex workers that if a sex worker says he or she has been raped then they definitely have – I certainly can’t recall any incidents having been reported to NUM that I have had any reason to doubt the honesty of the person reporting. I think it’s important for the police to try to empathise with victims and be conscious of different lifestyles and how that may affect engagement with a lengthy, time consuming and often frustrating criminal justice process.

Can you tell me about National Ugly Mugs (NUM), why it was set up and its aims?

NUM is the result of years of research and advocacy by the UK Network of Sex Work Projects (UKNSWP). There is an established body of evidence that sex workers are often targeted by dangerous perpetrators but are far less likely to report these incidents to the police. Local ugly mugs scheme have existed throughout the world for around thirty years now but this is the first time that there has been a national scheme with formal police links, so NUM is pioneering.

The Home Office funded the UKNSWP to run a development project, which involved a broad consultation. This was run by Shelly Stoops and Rosie Campbell (two of the main pioneers of the Merseyside model) who are still very much involved with the scheme today. Their experience and expertise is invaluable and I was so pleased recently when Rosie was given an OBE in recognition of her dedication. Following on from the development project the Home Office funded the UKNSWP to run a nine-month NUM pilot, which ended at the end of March this year and exceeded expectations. We are now in the post-pilot period and seeking other sources of funding to continue the scheme.

Can you explain how the scheme works?

NUM is so simple but so effective. Individual sex workers, organisations offering frontline support (including NHS clinics), escort advertising sites and even establishments can all join the scheme and report incidents. When incidents are reported to us, we produce an alert that is sent by e-mail or SMS to all members of the scheme to warn sex workers about potentially dangerous individuals. This is to prevent crimes and from our evaluation, it is clear that some sex workers are working more safely and avoiding particular individuals as a direct result of our alerts. As well as preventing crimes, we also want to make sex workers safer by bringing these perpetrators to justice. So, the other main aspect of the scheme, if we have consent from the victim, is sharing the intelligence anonymously with police crime analysts. We can also provide support for victims in making formal reports to the police.

One of the crucial aspects of the NUM Scheme is that it provides a service to all sex workers irrespective of their gender identity, sexual orientation or the sector they work in and this reflects the diversity of the industry. One example of this is that we had some feedback from private or independent escorts at the start of the scheme that providing incomplete phone numbers in our alerts wasn’t helpful to them. As a result of this we consulted with legal advisers and developed a number checker which, from what we are told, has proved to be very useful for sex workers advertising online who are often contacted initially by phone.

What positive outcomes have you seen as a result of NUM?

Criminal Justice outcomes were not anticipated in the pilot phase due to the length of time it usually takes from an offence to the conviction of the offender but NUM led to the arrest and imprisonment of eight serial offenders.

Partnership work between the police, the local support project and NUM in engaging victims was crucial in the arrest and conviction of four violent robbers who targeted at least thirteen premises and small businesses. They got four years in prison. Further arrests have been made through NUM intelligence sharing in relation to these incidents.

Two rapists in Merseyside have been arrested, charged and sentenced thanks to partnership work between NUM, the local project and the police. In one case, National Ugly Mugs reports were used as similar fact evidence. One rapist in Manchester has also been arrested due to partnership work between police, NUM and the local support project.

NUM has also led to the apprehension of a well-known violent fraudster who targeted male escorts and hotels and has been imprisoned to serve the remainder of a previous sentence for similar crimes.

There are also several other cases we’re working on with the police to try to support the victim in making a full statement so that the perpetrators can be arrested.

In addition to these concrete criminal justice outcomes, I really believe that the scheme has raised awareness about crimes against sex workers, promoted sex worker rights and changes some of the attitudes and approaches amongst police forces. We held nine sex worker awareness and NUM training sessions for police officers throughout the country and from the feedback we received, the majority said they’d change their practices in some way as a result. That is a really positive outcome!

NUM is pioneering and, in a sense, historic and I really do believe that we’re saving lives. I am so proud to be part of it and to have been given the opportunity to develop and deliver the model proposed by Shelly and Rosie in the development project.

How is the scheme managed and funded?

The scheme is managed by the UKNSWP and was initially funded by the Home Office. Now we are beyond the Home Office funded pilot phase the UKNSWP is exploring and utilising a variety of funding sources to keep the scheme going. We have received some funding from police forces for example, but NUM will always be managed independently by the UKNSWP. We are also selling our merchandise and trying to encourage people to donate. So many sex workers regularly donate to us now too. Getting thanks and recognition from the very people the scheme was set up to help is so important to me.

What are the plans for NUM going forward?

The scheme continues to snowball. We get more and more new members each day – over 1,100 individual sex workers are signed up – and continue to build stronger partnerships with police. There is a great deal of scope to expand the scheme, but it depends to a certain extent on what extra funding we can secure. We also want to make a few minor tweaks to improve the scheme and take into account recommendations from the NUM pilot evaluation.

What are your thoughts on the Merseyside model of treating crimes against people in the sex trade as hate crimes?

In many ways, the Merseyside model was used as a guide in the development of NUM and we still see some of the fundamental principles of that model, particularly the partnership work between police and projects, as the gold standard that we promote nationally. Police officers who were involved in the establishment of the Merseyside model are still heavily involved with NUM in an advisory capacity.

Treating crimes against sex workers as a hate crime sends a strong message to sex workers that they will be taken seriously if they are the victim of a crime.

As Rosie pointed out in her interview, the hate crime approach is just one facet of the Merseyside model. Having an ISVA (Independent Sexual Violence Advisor) working directly with sex workers can also have a huge impact. Open Doors project in East London largely based their ISVA role on the Merseyside model and in perhaps a more difficult policing climate, they achieve regular criminal justice outcomes for sex workers. They have also embraced NUM at every level of their service and have really seen the value of the scheme and how it can improve the safety of their own service users.

The impact of the multifaceted approach in Merseyside is demonstrated by the numbers of sex workers who are willing to formally engage with the police. Of the 345 incidents reported to NUM nationally only around 28% of the victims are willing to formally engage with the police. The project in Merseyside reports a significantly higher proportion engaging with the police. And even Open Doors in London, where crimes against sex workers are not treated as hate crimes, has a higher proportion of victims engaging with the police than the national average.

Would you like to see the Merseyside model rolled out across every police force within the UK? Do you feel there is a need for any changes to the Merseyside model if it were to be implemented UK wide?

Without question, if every aspect of the Merseyside model was implemented throughout the UK then there would be a sea change. If every area had a specialist ISVA working with sex workers and every police force adopted the hate crime approach then I have no doubt that more sex workers would report crimes and, as a result, more dangerous offenders would be brought to justice. This would be hugely beneficial to the police, to sex workers and, of course, to the wider public.

With regards to what I would change about the Merseyside model, I think the key principles behind it should be seen in every area and in every police force as something to strive towards. The Merseyside model is the legacy of so much hard work and dedication from the key people involved and I have no doubt that they changed attitudes and challenged prejudices. With the National Ugly Mugs Scheme now in place, other areas wanting to adopt elements of the Merseyside model have a supportive infrastructure in place and can take advantage of a climate within the police, which I believe has changed for the better over the last year or so.

Further information:

National Ugly Mugs website: http://uknswp.org/um

And on Twitter: @NationalUglyMug

You can learn more about National Ugly Mugs here, make a donation to support the continuation of the scheme, and find out how you can support this vital service.

Rosie Campbell OBE, Chair of UK Network of Sex Work Projects (UKNSWP) National Ugly Mugs Advisory Group, is undertaking the Great North Swim to raise funds for National Ugly Mugs. Click here for her JustGiving sponsorship page.

Please support our petition on Change.org to make the Merseyside model the standard policing approach for the UK.

About Ruth Jacobs (296 Articles)
Author of Soul Destruction: Unforgivable, a novel exposing the dark world and harsh reality of life as a drug addicted call girl. The main storyline is based loosely on events from my own life. In addition to fiction writing, I am also involved in journalism and broadcasting, primarily for human rights campaigning in the areas of sex workers' rights, anti-sexual exploitation and anti-human trafficking.

4 Comments on In the Booth with Ruth – Alex Bryce, Manager, National Ugly Mugs

  1. Reblogged this on The ObamaCrat.Com™ and commented:
    IN THE BOOTH WITH RUTH – ALEX BRYCE, MANAGER, NATIONAL UGLY MUGS. Check this out.

  2. Reblogged this on Soul Destruction and commented:

    Alex Bryce, Manager of National Ugly Mugs (NUM), gives a brilliant and powerful interview, marking the pioneering scheme’s one year anniversary. He talks about NUM, the successes so far and the plans for the future, he gives his thoughts on the Merseyside hate crime model, and he shares personal experiences of dealing with the police when as a teenager he was sexually and physically assaulted, and more recently when he and his partner were wrongfully arrested and assaulted.

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  1. Stigma, sex work and safety | Women's Views on News
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