Policing is a key determinant in both likelihood of violence and access to justice for sex workers (Platt et al, 2018), which vary significantly across the diversity of the sex industry. In England and Wales it is not illegal to sell or pay for sex, but soliciting is prohibited, as is working with others, running a brothel and involvement of third parties. This places the police in a dual role: enforcing laws which position many sex workers as criminals whilst protecting and supporting them as victims of crime. Research has shown that police time on sex work tends to be dominated by responding to community concerns with visible sex work, meaning dealing with recidivist ‘anti-social’ behaviour rather than deeper enduring issues of harm and vulnerability. The National Police Chiefs’ Council’s Policing Sex Work and Prostitution Guidance outlines the importance of starting ‘from a position that seeks to address vulnerability and exploitation’ (NPCC, 2019: 4) and states that ‘enforcement does not resolve the issue, but rather displaces it, making sex workers more vulnerable’ (NPCC 2015: 10). In an era where ‘protection of the vulnerable’ is a core policing priority, one of the ways injustices and safety risks to sex workers has been addressed is through dedicated specialist Sex Work Liaison Officers (SWLOs). West Yorkshire Police (WYP) is one of only a few forces in England to have a full-time SWLO. This report gives an overview of findings from a one year mixed-methods study on role of the SWLO in Leeds, focussed on developing an evidence base to assist implementation and development of similar roles.
- Sex workers are highly vulnerable to crime due to a variety of social, legal and environmental factors. The role of SWLO has major benefits in how this vulnerability can be mitigated by local police forces.
- There were benefits in the purpose and duties of the SWLO role being approached flexibly, but core tasks, priorities, responsibilities and outcomes could be standardised further to enhance effectiveness.
- The SWLO plays a vital role in building trust with sex workers and ensuring more crimes committed against this group enter the criminal justice system, although considerable barriers to reporting remain.
- If approached with due care and consideration of sex workers’ perspectives, the role provides significant ‘intelligence value’ for investigating serious offending (in Leeds this includes human trafficking), offering an alternative approach to resource-intensive surface-level displacement of anti-social behaviour.
- Increased reporting is an important first step, but in terms of delivering ‘good outcomes’ for sex workers in the criminal justice system, the SWLO’s role is limited without similar improvement in investigations and prosecutions. At present, most crime reports result in ‘no further action’.
- Whilst beneficial in certain respects, concentration of good practice in responding to sex workers could also be limiting, with sustainability a key risk where that good practice is centred on one officer.
- The effectiveness of the SWLO role is highly dependent on the local and national blend of enforcement against sex workers and support for this group as victims of crime. The role offers a useful model for police responses to those who are vulnerable to crime and also positioned in law as criminal.
- The provision is citywide, including indoor and online sex work, but in practice, concerns about street sex work dominate, driving SWLO priorities. Changes to resourcing and governance arrangements could enable the role to operate in ways more aligned with the evidence base on sex worker vulnerability.
Download the full findings report here.
Research authored by: Dr Kate Brown, Dr Scarlett Redman, Sharon Grace (University of York), with research methods support from Dr Alison Jobe (University of Durham) and Prof Maggie O’Neill (University of Cork). We are grateful to sex workers who acted as advisors, SWARM North for input on research tools and analysis, National Ugly Mugs for data on sex worker reports in Leeds, and Basis Yorkshire for facilitating sex worker input.