This article was first published on The Huffington Post – 5 February 2014
Bonnie Barratt was only 24 years old when she was murdered in 2007 in East London. The serial killer who took her life might have been stopped and Bonnie might still be alive today if her friends had been able to turn to the police. The murderer had been a regular client to the women who were in prostitution and he’d started to get rough with some of them.
But women in the sex trade don’t have the protection of the police. Often when reporting crimes against them they fear being charged with something related to prostitution, not being believed, being blamed, losing their standing in the community, losing custody of their children. There are so many barriers to reporting crimes committed against them, most do not and that is what makes them ‘easy targets’ for criminals. Women in prostitution are at the highest risk of rape and other violence and in London, their mortality rate is 12 times the national average.
I was introduced to Bonnie’s mother, Jackie Summerford, who brings up Bonnie’s son, through a friend when I began working to raise awareness of the policing model operating in Merseyside. A year before Bonnie was murdered, in 2006, Merseyside Police pledged to treat crimes against sex workers as hate crimes. Their approach to policing prostitution is very different from the rest of the UK as are their results convicting rapists and other violent offenders targeting people in the sex trade. In 2010, their conviction rate for those who raped sex workers was 67%. The national average conviction rate for rape is just 6.5%.
The police in Merseyside work closely with sex work projects that offer services such as harm reduction, counselling and outreach. A specialist trained Independent Sexual Violence Advisor (ISVA) acts as an intermediary when people in the sex trade have been the victim of crime and supports them through the process from report to court.
This joined-up approach prioritising protection over enforcement enables women in the sex trade to feel safe reporting crimes committed against them. Because trusting relationships with the police have been developed, reporting of crimes has dramatically increased. Women in prostitution in Merseyside know when they call the police they will be treated as any other victim of crime as is their right. But although this is the right of every person in prostitution throughout the UK, it is not what they receive and that has to change.
In 2011, the Association of Chief Police Officers recommended all forces adopt the Merseyside hate crime approach, but none have and none are obliged to. Because of this, I have joined with Jackie, Bonnie’s mother, and Alex Bryce, Manager of National Ugly Mugs – a scheme that increases safety for sex workers – calling for Theresa May MP to make this model of policing law throughout the UK.
Currently, approaches deployed in other parts of the country are failing these women, forcing them into more isolated and dangerous areas and alienating them further from the police and this cannot continue. Just last year when Redbridge Police took a hard line approach to women working on-street, which is known to create more danger, 24-year-old Mariana Popa was murdered. Policing policies must serve to protect people, not put them in danger.
The Merseyside hate crime model works to increase safety for sex workers and by convicting more rapists and other violent criminals, all of society is made safer. Please support our petition on Change.org to make this the standard policing approach for the UK.