In the chill of the October night, there's little to distinguish sex worker from churchgoer. Bundled in scarves and woolly hats, over 50 women and men have gathered silently this past Sunday, October 19, to warm the heart of Allan Gardens with candles and incense and mourn the loss of Lien Pham, the second prostitute murdered in Toronto since August. There are a lot of front-line workers here, famous faces in the battle for sex workers' rights. Others are known only from street corners or ads in the back pages of NOW. Safety is reiterated. Self-defence flyers are handed out. But after days of talking to over half a dozen sex workers, past and present, I'm left to wonder, are these women as safe as they could be?
"Sex workers are caught in a paradox," says Anastasia Kuzyk of the Sex Workers Alliance of Toronto, sipping from a styrofoam cup at a Church Street coffee shop just a few days earlier. They're working in conflict with the law, but when violence erupts they need its protection as much as anyone else. "There's still that attitude (among some cops) that you can't rape a prostitute."
It makes for a complicated relationship that gets most working girls nervous. Are they to trust the police, who bust them in their place of work, to get a predator off the streets?
Police posters tacked up around town ask women to share anything they've heard about the victims' bad tricks and to come forward with their own accounts of dates gone terribly awry. But front-line "morality" cops continued to cuff prostitutes in massive street sweeps just weeks after trans sex worker Cassandra Do's murder back in August and then again just a few weeks before the most recent killing.
"One arm of the police is saying, 'Please trust us; please share whatever you have about your bad dates; please help us find a murderer,'" explains 519 Community Centre trans program coordinator Kyle Scanlon. "And the other arm of the police is saying, 'Climb in the van, honey, you're under arrest. '"
In her work compiling bad-date sheets at Maggie's, a peer prostitute support centre, outreach worker Wendy (who prefers not to use her last name) says most women refuse to go to the police to file an official report when they're raped and beaten. "It's happened quite a few times where women have gone down (to report) a sex crime and end up being arrested for a prostitution-related offence."
But even when some women do head to the cop shop, the police just brush them off, says 519 male trans outreach worker Diana Forester. "In the past, girls have put in complaints (after being assaulted), and nothing's been done. I've seen girls being beat, and because they were crack-addicted or were hookers the reports went nowhere. That's why the trans community and the sex-working community don't want to be involved with the police in these issues."
With an estimated two to three assaults against prostitutes every night of the week, the number slipping through cracks could be astounding.
Though the sexual assault squad was set up in 1989 to investigate crimes of this kind, if rank-and-file officers don't bother to record what they hear, the file dies and never makes its way to the squad. And of the over 2,000 sex assaults reported to the Toronto police annually, only about 250 cases are pursued by the unit.
That brings us back to that issue of contradictory forces within the police service itself. Rough-and-ready flatfoots deepen the great divide between prostitutes and police by slapping around morality charges and the like, while specially trained squads big on "sensitivity," like homicide or sexual assault, hand conciliatory olive branches to the otherwise criminalized community.
Homicide detective Craig Sanson admits that the very women he's trying to reach out to in his investigation of the recent murders have been slighted by front-line cops.
"Some of (the sex workers) have been met with resistance from an officer to take a report because of what they do," says Sanson. "But that's not the way it's supposed to be, nor how the officers are instructed. If a crime's being reported, a report must be taken." Sanson is quick to distinguish his own approach to sex workers. "What they do for a profession is no concern of mine," adds Sanson. "I'm interested in information that's going to help me track this guy down."
Sanson and friends are trying to prove that they are indeed listening. Just last week, police met with sex workers at the 519 to calm fears and hear the community's concerns. The cops took note as the women asked for more specialized training for front-line and special liaison officers in every division.
In a relationship that has long been marked by hostility, the sex work community's front-liners are now couching their ongoing complaints diplomatically, commending the squads on doing their best or at least showing them some respect.
The police, after all, are their main hope of catching the predator who has been raping and now killing them since the late 90s. Community leaders are trying to demonstrate that, yes, girls, you can trust the police. And it's working on some. Half a dozen have approached Sanson with reports of their own bad tricks with a man matching the perp's description.
Toronto lawyer Alan Young, who spent much of the 1980s working prostitution cases, says it's important to be fair to the force. The clearance rate on overall murder cases runs anywhere from 75 to 85 per cent - not significantly higher than the rate for murder cases involving prostitutes.
"I don't think I can ever claim, as some activists do, that the police simply do not enforce the law or care about dead prostitutes. But," adds Young, "I think there is some truth to the assertion that there's less zeal and enthusiasm about clearing these cases than there would be when a more reputable member of society is killed."
With the shadow of BC's Robert "Willie" Picton case hanging over them, criminologists are well aware of how little concrete data there is to show how the cops currently handle crimes against sex workers.
"We know what the situation was at the time of the Jane Doe suit (the cops' botching of a serial rape case that led to an audit of how sexual assault cases are dealt with)," says University of Toronto criminologist Mariana Valverde. "But since then, we haven't had any scandal (in Toronto) that's generated this information. Unfortunately, information about criminal justice only seems to be generated through scandal."
Whether the rape and murder of two prostitutes in two months is enough to qualify remains to be seen.