'Ashamed of my gender' says officer in charge of London's human trafficking unit

Detectives with London human trafficking section have had to rethink how they do their jobs to help them deal with the victims they encounter, the pimps they don't catch, and the Johns willing to turn a blind eye to exploitation.

'It's probably the hardest work I've ever done in my career, and it's probably the hardest work I'll ever do'

Det. Mike Hay conducts surveillance at a London hotel during an investigation into possible human trafficking. (Kate Dubinski/CBC News)

CBC reporter Kate Dubinski spent time with the London Police Service's human trafficking unit in December. This is the third story in Kate's series, Knock at the Door.

Detective Mike Hay used to pose as a John, trying to bust women in the sex trade. 

These days, he heads a London police unit that takes a very different approach to women doing the same type of work. 

"Putting that person in jail, putting them on (court) conditions that they would breach, and they'd be back in jail, it's not a good idea for anyone," says Hay as he sits in an unmarked van parked outside a hotel. He's part of a stakeout there because his officers believe a woman inside the hotel is being sold for sex against her will. 

"You're just putting people in jail for something they didn't want to do, but didn't have very many options. I always knew, this isn't helping." 

Det. Hay is in charge of London's human trafficking unit. 

It was created in 2016, and includes Hay and two other detectives. 

CBC News is not showing Hay's face because he still works undercover. 

London's proximity to Hwy. 401, the dozens of hotels just off North America's busiest highway, and the ease of meeting up for sex online, have meant big business for pimps selling people — mostly girls and women.

Hotels just off Highway 401 in London are one of the places members of the human trafficking section look for girls and women being sold for sex against their will. (Colin Butler/CBC News)

Each member of the human trafficking team has ongoing investigations that take up the bulk of their time. The work is slow and doesn't always result in arrests or charges. 

"Every day, the first thing I think of is our files. It's not easy work. In fact, it's probably the hardest work I've ever done in my career, and it's probably the hardest work I'll ever do, and it's the most important work I'll ever do." 

It's also work that will change the way you look at people, Hay confesses. 

'The evil men can do'

"It's blown me away. It would be ridiculously naive to not think that there's men who would like to pay for sex on a regular basis. I've always known that," admits Hay. 

"Maybe there was always this desire and it wasn't easily accessible, or maybe people's minds are changing about what is acceptable. What really gets me is when you come across a young victim." 

Last summer, London police officers rescued a 14-year-old who was being trafficked. She didn't look older than 16. 

"I am certain the vast majority of men who walked into that room and put money on the table had to know she wasn't of consenting age, and yet they did it anyway ... It makes me really concerned for the human condition and makes me wonder what evil men can do. It makes me ashamed of my gender.

"That sounds dramatic, but I don't know how else to say it. It's a sad commentary on our society." 

Hay's team has just finished its second major project, pulling in officers from other units within the London Police Service. 

For four weeks during Project Solstice, officers posed as Johns with women they suspected were being trafficked, going into hotel rooms to offer help. 

They also posed as escorts, charging men who were looking to buy sex. 

As of 2014, it's illegal to purchase sexual services in Canada, but it's legal to sell sex. 

Officers tackle human trafficking (Kate Dubinski/CBC News)

Since becoming the head of the human trafficking team in London, Det. Hay says he's had to rethink how he views his role as a police officer, and how people treat one another. 

"The victims in this crime are like nothing else I've seen. It's mind-boggling and eye-opening how much some of these people have been through," Hay says. "I don't want to sound like a prude. I have no issue with consenting adults having sex however they want to have sex, as long as everyone is on board with it and the people are not hurting each other." 

Victims mostly Canadian women, girls

"A lot of people have an understanding of human trafficking as someone who is brought from another country in the back of a boat and forced to work," Hay says. 

"In Canada, the vast majority of it is domestic sex trafficking. That's our children, living in this country, who are being sexually exploited. I think every day, normal people are suddenly finding out about what this is all about. It's not just people who have drug addiction, it's not just people who are homeless. It's anyone." 

The Internet, Hay says, has changed the sex trade. 

On a given night in London, there are 80 to 90 ads on a website popular for escorts, advertising sex. Most advertise as "independent sex workers", but that's not a way to tell that the woman isn't being forced into the trade. 

"Some of these cases are so hard, you can't get them out of your head. They're hard on the investigating officer," Hay says. 

Redefining success

Success is no longer an arrest or a charge or a conviction. It's not even getting a pimp off the street. 

Success might be having a good conversation with a woman, or getting her some relief. 

Sometimes, victims aren't ready for help right away, Hay adds. 

"Our team is about what's best for the victim. I think that' the best way to deal with it," he says.

Human trafficking charges are difficult to prove, and difficult to prosecute. Victims who are rebuilding their lives might not want to testify when the case finally makes its way to trial. Often, officers will lay other charges, for weapons or drugs, to keep pimps off the street. 

Det. Hay says his biggest fear is that the women he encounters, whether in the sex trade willingly or not, will get hurt. 

"It's our responsibility to make a connection with those sex trade workers, to try to instill some trust, and 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 and reach out." 

London Police Detective Mike Hay tells London Morning about a conference to help police recognize the signs of human trafficking and how to help victims of human trafficking. 9:24