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National Ugly Mugs Scheme - Protecting Sex Workers From Predators

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The National Ugly Mugs (NUM) Pilot Scheme - funded by the Home Office but managed independently by the UK Network of Sex Work Projects (UKNSWP) - went live on July 6 2012. Only ten days later, Cleveland police confirmed that they had found the remains of Rachel Wilson who went missing from her Middlesbrough home while sex working ten years ago. This served as a tragic reminder of why this Scheme is needed and why it is supported by so many - from senior politicians from the three main political parties and senior police officers to academics and sex workers themselves.

This case reinforces the fact that there are a group of offenders who actively target sex workers and commit a range of crimes against them from verbal abuse and robbery to serious sexual assaults and murder. Since 1990, 136 sex workers have been murdered in this country that the UKNSWP are aware of and I suspect that there are more that we don't know about. There have been several key studies in this field which have demonstrated the prevalence of violence against sex workers. For example, a 2002 study (Working on the Street: An Evaluation of the Linx Project, Liverpool Hope) by Rosie Campbell, Chair of the NUM Advisory Group, focusing on street sex workers in Merseyside found that 79% had been attacked in the course of their work and, of those, 40% had been attacked in the last month. Other studies of female street sex workers have had similar results.

It is also clear - underpinned by both experience and research - that many sex workers don't feel comfortable reporting often very serious crimes to the police which not only creates a significant gap in intelligence but has also resulted in many very dangerous repeat offenders - often with escalating behaviour - being at large, a danger not exclusively to sex workers but to the wider public. This underreporting was highlighted in 'Silence on Violence', a report by London Assembly Member and NUM Champion Andrew Boff, which raised concerns there had been a reduction in confidence amongst sex workers in London in reporting violence to the police, at least partly due to an increase in enforcement activity including raids of premises and use of the soliciting legislation in some parts of the capital.

Ugly Mugs schemes originated in Australia when sex workers, reluctant to go to the police, circulated alerts amongst themselves about dangerous individuals which they referred to as 'ugly mugs' or 'dodgy punters'. There have been local Ugly Mugs Schemes coordinated by sex work projects throughout the UK for more than 20 years, many of which have developed information sharing agreements with local police forces and have helped bring very dangerous violent criminals to justice.

There is a strong foundation of evidence which tells us that both sex workers and those who target them are often mobile, travelling from one area to the next. Two examples of notorious mobile offenders include Gary Allen and Matthew Byrne.

Gary Allen went to prison for attacks on sex workers in Plymouth. He had previously been acquitted of a sex worker murder in Hull. After being released from prison he subsequently breached a SOPO (Sexual Offences Protection Order) for approaching sex workers in Scunthorpe.

Matthew Byrne, who had a high public profile in Liverpool as a manager of a local youth charity, picked up a street sex worker in Coventry and took her back to his home in Liverpool, almost 130 miles away, where he subjected her to horrific violence. The sex work projects in Liverpool and Coventry worked closely with each other and the police to locate more victims and support them in making full statements. He is currently serving a prison sentence for crimes against four sex workers as well as possessing 9,000 indecent images of children, making indecent images and committing a lewd act in the presence of a school girl on a train. The proactive action of the two projects working together (which was partly down to the fact that the two managers are close friends) helped bring Byrne to justice but these pre-existing relationships were down to chance. NUM will not rely on chance, informal relationships - instead, it will formalise such relationships throughout the UK.

So, to warn mobile sex workers and warn against mobile offenders like Byrne and Allen, NUM will allow members to receive alerts/warnings about dangerous individuals who may target them wherever they go. It will also spread good practice and coordination between projects, engage online escorts, raise awareness nationally, increase reporting of these crimes and improve practice amongst police forces throughout the UK.

The Scheme has been formally supported by the Association of Chief Police Officers (ACPO), declared in the renewed ACPO Strategy and Supporting Operational Guidance for Policing Prostitution and Sexual Exploitation published in 2011 which encourages "Supporting new and established local Ugly Mugs schemes, as well as supporting the Introduction of a UK wide Ugly Mugs scheme". Simon Byrne, Assistant Commissioner of the Metropolitan Police, who is the ACPO lead for prostitution, is also a formal NUM Supporter. In addition, a crucial aspect of the Scheme is sharing information relating to reported incidents, with the consent of victims, with the Serious Crimes Analysis Section (SCAS) - a national hub of serious sexual crimes which is analysed by specialist crime and behavioural analysts to assist police investigations.

The introduction of Police and Crime Commissioners (PCCs) this year will create both challenges and opportunities for NUM. A more localised form of policing with one directly elected individual being held to account for the direction and focus of crime prevention in a whole force will have a significant impact on policing priorities in a particular area.

The existing partnerships which were established throughout the NUM Development Project and the set-up period have helped to create a model which interfaces with police forces and intelligence systems for the mutual benefit of the members of the Scheme (sex workers in general and, indeed, the wider public) and, crucially, police officers investigating crimes.

Although there are significant regional variations in how engaged police forces are with local Ugly Mugs schemes in the UK and, indeed, how crimes against sex workers are dealt with from one force to the next, there has been widespread, high-level police support for NUM. This is founded on the realisation that due to under-reporting there is a very real gap in police intelligence relating to crimes against sex workers and this will inevitably have negative consequences for public protection.

We have no doubt that this Scheme will prevent crimes from being committed, enhance intelligence and assist with investigations. It has not been difficult to convince key stakeholders, including senior police officers, of this. However, there is a danger that some PCCs may find it hard to resist the allure of an authoritarian populist approach to policing favouring quick fix, so called 'tough' solutions to often complex issues.

The real challenge for PCCs, in relation to NUM, is to understand that although this Scheme may not be the short-term, headline-grabbing approach that parts of their electorate may want, it can save lives (and not only the lives of sex workers though it is tragic that that point ever needs to be made) and complement police investigations and intelligence.

The big challenge - and opportunity - for the UKNSWP and its partnership supporters of NUM will be to make a powerful argument to newly-elected PCCs and encourage them to become NUM champions and see supporting the Scheme as crucial to fulfilling their public protection duties which would, in turn, bring more perpetrators to justice and further improve the safety of the people they are there to protect.

Nobody should be denied the basic human right to police protection and access to the justice system. This Scheme will be a crucial step in advocating for these rights for sex workers. Amy, a representative of Support and Advice For Escorts (SAAFE), and a National Ugly Mugs Champion, highlighted this in her speech at the NUM Launch event: "The scheme will form a lifeline for people like me all over the country, many of whom have no access to sex work projects and because of their personal circumstances and stigma, feel they have nowhere to turn in the event they are victims of crime. Allowing us the means to provide important information to the police anonymously and without fear of exposure or recrimination will not only catch criminals, it will save lives. This scheme tells the world in no uncertain terms that our lives are just as important as everybody else's."

By Alex Bryce (NUM Coordinator), Rosie Campbell (NUM Development Project & Chair of the NUM Advisory Group) and Shelly Stoops (NUM Development Project & UKNSWP Board Member)

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