Ottawa sex workers are upset with an “intimidating” police strategy to crack down on human trafficking that has groups of officers in plain clothes showing up to conduct searches during scheduled dates.

Escorts have been answering the door dressed for dates without knowing they were booked by officers posing as clients, according to an advocacy group for the rights of sex workers, called POWER. 

Sex worker and POWER member Caroline Newcastle (not her real name) said she knows of seven recent incidents and is concerned she will be next.

“To have a cop show up at your door under false pretenses — invite themselves in and search the premises — it’s very intimidating,” Newcastle said. 

Newcastle said police are violating the rights of sex workers with targeted and invasive searches that include asking for identification. The operation is putting the confidentiality and safety of sex workers at risk, she said.

“I don’t think they should be sacrificing 99 workers for the one, perhaps, illegal or underage worker they might find," she said.

Strategy means to curb human trafficking: police

Ottawa police Insp. Paul Johnston said the searches were part of a one-time, national initiative to investigate suspected cases of human trafficking. 

“It’s one of these unreported crimes. It’s difficult to find unless we get face-to-face interaction," he said.

"We’re trying to make efforts to go to them to break the cycle."

No charges were laid against the escorts, Johnston said.

Officers looked at websites in an effort to identify women who might be at risk before booking appointments and left business cards with the sex workers they visited in case they wanted to reach out for help later later.

"We were there to help," he said. "This was not an enforcement-driven initiative."

Police know from experience with victims of human trafficking that it's difficult for them to come forward and break free, he said.

“In fact, when we interviewed several victims, they indicated that had they been in contact with the police earlier, they may have been able to break the silence and get away from their controllers.”

Ottawa police have more human trafficking files now than ever before, Johnston said. 

More information about the searches will be released Tuesday afternoon.