On 24 June, Maria Benito [not her real name] called the police after being robbed at knifepoint by five men while working with other women in a flat in Enfield.
When officers attended the incident, Ms Benito was not given an opportunity to make a formal statement or offered support as a victim. Instead officers proceeded to ask inappropriate and intrusive questions about how many clients she and other women see each day, how much money they make and how many hours they work. They failed to secure possible forensics from a mobile phone and all areas of the flat that the attackers had touched.
Three officers later returned to deliver a letter which said: “Information suggested that the premises were being operated as a brothel . . . persons acting in contravention of the above legislation [on brothel-keeping] will be liable to arrest and may be prosecuted.”
Complaint and police response
Legal Action for Women (LAW), a legal service which, with the English Collective of Prostitutes, has been supporting Ms Benito, made a complaint on behalf of the women to Enfield Police DCS Iain Raphael.
The police only responded after they were contacted by the media. DCI Alison Cole attempted to justify the police handling of the incident saying:
- The women in the flat were treated as victims. Why then did they not receive a “written acknowledgement” that they had reported a crime, informed about the progress of the investigation or offered other support in accordance with the Victim’s Code? As a “persistently targeted” and “vulnerable” victim Ms Benito should have been entitled to an “enhanced service”
- The police had contacted the victims. Why then was Ms Benito, who made the initial call and speaks the best English, not contacted until the media and local MP asked questions? She rang and sent an email to try to contact the police but got no reply.
- The questions that police officers asked women about prices and number of clients were “relevant to the offence”. How? The police didn’t say.
- “At this stage there is no evidence of a linked series [of robberies]”.How can police know this considering that they hadn’t gathered all the available evidence about the Baker Street incident or evidence about the other robberies?
Five weeks after the robbery, Ms Benito, received a notice of removal from the UK. Her permission to be in the UK was revoked on the grounds that she was “not a genuine visitor to the UK” – she told police that she was a sex worker when she reported the attack. This is not the first time sex workers who insist on their right to protection and other labour rights are targeted for deportation. The police and Home Office have refused to acknowledge sex work as work or even as a “legitimate activity” even when no law has been broken.
The deportation order was only cancelled after the vigorous campaign spearheaded by the English Collective of Prostitutes.
When Ms Benito was eventually invited to make a statement (two days before she was due to be deported) the interviewing officer, DCI Alison Cole treated her in an arrogant and uncaring way. Ms Benito was understandably anxious about being alone with the police and asked for her partner to be present. Instead of trying to understand Ms Benito’s concerns and encourage her DCI Cole was quick to tell Ms Benito that if she didn’t agree to be interviewed under police conditions there would be “no victim, no crime”. This undue haste is suspicious – were the police looking to blame Ms Benito for their not pursuing the investigation?
Violent men left free to attack again
DCI Cole also refused to take a copy of a photo that Ms Benito believed was one of the attackers, saying that because it came from another robbery it wasn’t relevant. Ms Benito has been told of similar attacks in four other areas and wants to convey this to the police.
Unless these men are stopped they are likely to attack again. By refusing to investigate thoroughly, the police are deterring other sex workers from coming forward to report violence. Neither Ms Benito nor LAW have been told whether there has been any progress in catching these men. Women Against Rape reports that violence from serial attackers usually escalates. In one possibly related robbery a woman was raped.
Police public relations comments contradicted by their actions
Despite the lack of thoroughness in the investigation, the police continued to claim publicly that “the safety of people engaged in sex work is paramount to the police and tackling violence against women and girls is also a priority for the Met”. Why then is a violent armed gang being left free to terrorise vulnerable women?
Police actions contravenes their own guidelines
To threaten a victim who has reported a violent crime with prosecution contradicts The National Police Chiefs’ Council (NPCC) Policing Sex Work Guidance, which stress that the safety of people engaged in sex work must be paramount. It specifies that “brothel closures and ‘raids’ create a mistrust of all external agencies including outreach services. It is difficult to rebuild trust and ultimately reduces the amount of intelligence submitted to the police and puts sex workers at greater risk.”
Raids and arrests of sex workers continue
The police threat to prosecute Ms Benito for prostitution offences is not an isolated incident. A survey by the ECP shows that raids, arrests and prosecutions of sex workers continue despite a Home Affairs Committee report (July 2016) which recommended a change in the law “so that soliciting is no longer an offence and so that brothel-keeping provisions allow sex workers to share premises”.