'You're not in trouble,' undercover police assure sex workers
Published Monday, February 7, 2011 6:44PM EST
Det.-Const. Leanne Marchen listens to a sex worker in a downtown Toronto hotel while Det. Paul Gauthier takes notes.
It is called the Special Victims Section for a reason.
Five years ago, Toronto Police recognized that sex workers who are brutalized by clients and pimps required a special sort of treatment.
They needed cops who they could trust, cops who they knew wouldn't charge them, cops who were mandated to be on their side.
And so, in May 2006, under the leadership of the recently retired Det. Wendy Leaver, the Special Victims Section of the Sex Crimes Unit was formed.
"We come across men, women, transgendered people who are involved in the sex trade, who are victimized by crime," Det. Paul Gauthier says in their office at police headquarters. "While there are some girls who do go into this willingly, we come across a lot of girls who are brought into it from a very early age. Often girls start when they are 13, 14 years old, they are groomed by a pimp who controls their movements, who takes their money and basically acts as that threatening figure to make them work against their will."
Because the sex trade has largely moved indoors, Gauthier and his team have had to employ more creative methods to find victims than simply walking down the street and talking to women on seedy corners.
A couple of nights a week, they browse hundreds of online classified ads posted for sex workers across Toronto. They look for the young ones, knowing it is more likely they are being victimized.
It takes only a few moments to book enough "dates" to fill a shift.
There are in-calls and there are out-calls. In-calls mean the johns (clients) go to the sex worker. Out-calls mean the sex worker goes to them.
Posing as johns, the Special Victims Section men call the phone numbers on the ads and book either an in-call or an out-call. Once they are in a room with the girl or woman, Det. Leanne Marchen appears and explains what the unit is all about.
"You're not in trouble," is one of the first things the girls and women are told.
This comes as a relief to many who have been trained that police are the bad guys.
If it's an out-call and the police officers have booked a hotel room, they will have pamphlets and business cards with the "Bad Date Line" already laid out on a table.
At that point, officers will explain that the Bad Date Line – 416-808-0000 – is a number sex workers can call with an anonymous message if they've encountered a violent john. There is also the 24-hour hotline, 416-456-7259, if the sex worker wishes to speak with someone in person.
"We will not judge you. We are here to help you. We are here to investigate your offender," the pamphlet reads. "We will always treat you as a Victim First."
They do the same thing at strip clubs, where Marchen sits down with women as they get ready to go on stage.
It has been known as a life-changing unit – not just for the sex workers police encounter, but for the officers themselves, whose eyes have been opened to a problem plaguing virtually every neighbourhood across the city.
The glowing red "massage" signs, the VIP rooms of strip clubs, the upscale condominiums, airport-area hotels and sleazy motel rooms across the city – girls and women are being attacked and exploited virtually everywhere, many times forced to hand over every penny of their earnings to pimps.
"It's a crime that doesn't always get reported to us, but we would like to do more," Gauthier says. "Our role in this unit is to get those girls to come forward because we are going to do what we can to help them and try to get them out of this lifestyle if they choose."
Follow CTV Toronto Crime Reporter Tamara Cherry on Twitter: @tamaracherry