Inside a human trafficking investigation
London police officers pose as Johns to help women they suspect are being sold for sex against their will
CBC reporter Kate Dubinski spent time with the London Police Service's human trafficking unit in December. This is the first story in Kate's series, Knock at the Door.
The anonymous phone call prompts urgency.
A woman from Cuba is in a London hotel room, police are told, and is being sold for sex by a man who has access to cocaine and a handgun.
Eight London officers put on their body armour and strap on their police weapons.
Inside the human trafficking squad room at police headquarters, there are printed-out pictures posted on the wall of possible pimps and possible victims. There are also photos from surveillance operations as well as social media profiles. The images will help police in their work today.
The officers have come in for a shift that starts at 1 p.m. Within 20 minutes, they're on their way to one of a dozen hotels just off Hwy. 401, a prime spot for the buying and selling of sex with women in London.
CBC News is along for the ride, a single shift during Project Solstice, an investigation that involves the human trafficking unit's three officers, as well as six others pulled in from other sections for the four-week project.
The officers divide into teams, some setting up surveillance in the parking lot of the hotel. They're watching for Johns — and for pimps. And, this time, they're on high alert because of the information about a handgun and drugs.
Officers set up inside the hotel, making sure doors are covered. One checks a website popular with sex workers and with those buying sex, to see if any ads raise flags. A text is sent to the cell phone number appearing on the ad for the Cuban woman, asking to meet.
"Whoever is using this ad is all over southwestern Ontario," says one officer, determining that the ad was posted for London that morning.
That's the problem with victims of human trafficking -- one day, they're in Toronto, the next in London, or Windsor, Woodstock or Kingston.
The victims themselves -- and they are, for the most part, women and girls -- often don't know what city they're in.
A hotel room in Kingston looks just like a hotel room in London.
When a client walks in, she doesn't know what he's paid for — nor what she has, supposedly, agreed to do.
A menu of sex acts
If she's a victim of human trafficking, the woman or girl stays in the hotel room, often without a phone. A pimp arranges with the John the terms -- what sex acts she will perform, and how much she will make.
The Internet has changed the sex trade. You don't have to drive up and down the street looking for a girl ...- Detective Mike Hay
The entire interaction takes about 30 minutes, and then a new man comes to the hotel room.
"The Internet has changed the sex trade. You don't have to drive up and down the street looking for a girl on a shady street corner. Now, you have a menu of people," Det. Mike Hay says as he drives us in an unmarked minivan towards the concentration of hotels along Wellington Road right off Hwy. 401, North America's busiest highway.
"You see their picture, which sexual acts you're interested in, what it will cost you. You put on a hoodie, knock on a door, have that happen and leave. The anonymity of it all and the ease with which it can happen has made it much more easily accessible."
Knocking on doors, looking for victims
They're called vice probes, or door knocks.
London's human trafficking unit was formed in early 2016, and uses vice probes as a way to reach out to women they think might need help.
In 2017, the first full year of operation, the unit helped rescue 15 women and girls from the sex trade. The youngest was 14.
To find them, officers pore over advertisements posted on popular websites advertising sex work, looking for signs of trafficking -- women who move around frequently, look very young, are branded in some way, such as a tattoo, or who have few restrictions about the sex work they offer.
On this Thursday in London, there are close to 90 different online ads.
Hotels serve as place of business
Posing as a John, officers set up a meeting in a hotel room.
There's not a hotel in the city they haven't done a probe in, Hay says.
"London is unique because there's a whole lot of hotels, and all you have to do is get right off the 401, and you have very little navigating of the city to deal with before you're in a hotel."
The ads online offer "menu options" that the women are willing to provide. Independent sex workers usually have more restrictions, Hay says, because they determine themselves what they are and are not willing to do.
A mom with a need for money
The wait to meet the Cuban woman is an hour and a half. She sees three men during that time.
It's obvious she's not answering her own texts, because officers are sent long replies while she's in the hotel room with clients.
Officers know this because they've set up in a room across the hallway to observe the comings and goings through the door peep hole. They don't always do that, but tonight it was possible, and the report of a handgun makes things even more tense.
Hay works two cell phones and a police radio, communicating with his team, determining who should go where. He also gets a report of an 18-year-old who is being groomed into the trade, and officers try to find her ad too.
When it's the officers turn to see the Cuban woman, one knocks and another immediately identifies herself as an officer when the door is opened. They sweep the room for a pimp hiding in a bathroom or closet.
They don't find one.
Check on safety
Using Google Translate, the officers determine the woman from Cuba isn't being trafficked. She's here because her husband wouldn't give her money for their nine-year-old child.
She found an advertisement for a man who arranges her dates. In return, she pays him a cut.
It's illegal, the officers explain — but she is not arrested in this case
"She's willingly doing it," says one of the officers who spoke to the woman. "She's very ashamed but I explained that she's being a good mom. Her plan is to go back to Cuba. She took our phone numbers, she was receptive."
Redefining success: contact, not stats
In policing, success is usually defined by getting a bad guy off the street.
But in human trafficking investigations, officers have had to change that mindset.
I hope that by making these connections, trust is built ...- Det. Mike Hay
"Often, we don't get to arrest the person we want to arrest. This is a new realm of policing in London," says Hay.
Officers have also had sex workers they've spoken to before call them to raise concerns about girls or women who they think are being trafficked.
That's a success, Hay says.
"We're not out here trying to save people from the sex trade. I have no issue if someone is willingly working in the sex trade."
Officers also go over safety planning with sex workers — what to do in case of sexual assault or robbery, for example.
"We'll give her advice, tell her if she needs assistance, we can help her. The reality is, this is a dangerous trade. We want the sex trade to be a safer place."
Slow, steady work
The Cuban woman isn't being coerced into sex work.
Officers aren't able to find the ad for the 18-year-old who might be being groomed for the trade. They'll keep looking.
Two more hotels near the 401, and two more women the officers suspect are being trafficked, turn out to be independent workers.
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There have been no arrests, no charges laid.
No woman has been saved from the clutches of forced sex work. Not tonight.
But that doesn't mean the shift has been a bust.
"It's our responsibility to make a connection with those sex trade workers and to instill some trust, and to let them know that there are people out here who are police officers who care about their well being and who will help them if they need help. If they come to the end of their rope, maybe they'll trust that police officer," Hay says.
"I hope that by making these connections, trust is built, and if they are being trafficked or if they know someone who is being trafficked, they reach out."