A priest working in Soho’s red-light district, in central London, has claimed that the behavior of police during raids on local brothels was “unacceptable and at times unlawful.”
Simon Buckley, of St Anne’s rectory in Soho, has sent a report to the bishop of London and senior Metropolitan police officers airing his disquiet at an operation in response to crimes including trafficking and rape. His intervention comes as controversy deepens over attempts to clear out Soho’s brothels.
On Friday a judge said that two sex workers’ apartments, which had been recently closed in the raids, should be reopened, rejecting evidence that claimed they were being controlled by gangs.
Buckley highlighted concerns from sex workers that, despite police assurances that their welfare was paramount, the mass closure would push sex workers onto the streets, where “they are more vulnerable to abuse, attack and rape.”
During Operation Companion, 18 brothels were closed in raids involving 250 officers, many in riot gear, accompanied by dog units. The raids followed an undercover operation said to have linked the brothels to abuse and human trafficking.
Commander Alison Newcomb, who is in charge of policing in Westminster, central London, has justified targeting the apartments, saying it was important to “close brothels where we have evidence of very serious crimes happening, including rape and human trafficking.”
However, no trafficking victims were found in the operation and a letter from Newcomb, dated Jan. 27, reveals that “no specific number of women were suspected of being trafficked.”
“There is a clear reversal of the rationale that we [community leaders] were given on the night of the operation,” Buckley wrote in his report.
He also claims he has received testimony from sex workers that at least one woman was forced into the street in only her underwear during the raids; that photographs of women appeared in the media because press photographers were invited on the operation; and that some women were allegedly threatened by police that their children or parents would be told they were working as prostitutes.
Metropolitan police sources said they could not comment on Buckley’s allegations while legal action was ongoing. A statement from Scotland Yard, the headquarters of the Metropolitan Police Service, said the raids were authorized by Westminster Council and adhered to legal procedure.
Newcomb’s letter said all media photographs accompanying the raid were taken in “public places.” She said the operation was not about vulnerable women, but was chiefly intended to target a stolen goods hotspot, while being alert for signs of trafficking.
Further complaints are likely to be heard today, when another appeal against one of the closure orders is to be heard in Isleworth Crown Court (the higher court of first instance in criminal cases in the UK), west London.
Selling sex for money is not a criminal offence in the UK, but police can close brothels if they can prove that women are being “controlled” by others.
However, one prostitute — whose apartment was closed in the raids — said last week it was “preposterous and demeaning” to suggest anyone other than the women themselves controlled the apartments.
Soho sex workers also allege that answers to “welfare” questionnaires handed to them by police over the past 18 months were used against them.