A bid to tackle Sheffield’s red light district by targeting kerb-crawlers is working, says the man charged with cleaning up the area – but police are still appealing to the public to help reduce the problem even further.
Sheffield’s prostitution officer PC John Taylor and colleague PC Robert Hamer took The Star’s reporter Alex Evans on patrol around Neepsend and Shalesmoor to show how police on the beat are tackling the grimy world of street sex.
Driving around roads including Scotland Street, Neepsend Lane and Allen Street, The Star witnessed single males on the lookout for prostitutes, and a total of eight women touting for trade in just under three hours on a clear Wednesday evening.
And soon enough the officers spot a blue car with a man who fits the profile – white male, on his own, middle aged. PC Taylor says many of the men are married and self-employed.
About 20 minutes later, the man appears again, parked up at the junction of a different street.
“We won’t spook him for now,” PC Taylor says, as the officers continue to sweep for suspicious activity, occasionally stopping to offer advice to the sex workers.
After pulling over and talking to a prostitute to check she is okay, the police continue to patrol - and spot the same blue car a third time on another different road.
The PC hits the blue lights and indicates for the man to pull over.
The middle-aged man steps out and is put in the back of the police car for questioning.
“I was looking for a friend,” he says nervously. “Who is a prostitute by any chance?” After a slight pause, he replies: “She was. I think she’s died now.”
The man goes on to tell the officers he was searching for a ‘tall blonde’, on behalf of a family who have supposedly asked him to find her.
“So why have you taken it on yourself to enquire for them?”
“I felt an obligation towards it. I’ve got a daughter the same age. I just parked up a couple of times and I thought, ‘If she’s not here I’ll report back’. I haven’t seen her.”
“Well I don’t believe you sir. And I’m half in a mind to arrest you at the moment for kerb crawling.”
PC Taylor then explained his registration plate will be entered into a system and, if his car is seen again, police will be at his door.
It‘s not the first time anyone has used a dubious excuse.
“It’s very difficult to make an excuse up when you have a prostitute in your car, but people try.We have had, ‘I just stopped to give her a lift’, ‘we were just having a kiss and a cuddle’, and ‘I didn’t know she was a prostitute’.
“Some of them just say, ‘I am ever so sorry, I am not getting on with my wife’. Others say, ‘I’m just having a chat’.
“But I can’t let anyone off -it would be unfair to the 74 others.”
City’s kerb-crawling reaches record level
PC John Taylor, prostitution officer for Sheffield, said: “Our areas of concern are the Shalesmoor area like Scotland Street and Allen Street and Neepsend.
“Separating that is Kelham Island, which we don’t have a problem with because the girls know it’s an area that’s out of bounds as it’s a residential area.
“I have concentrated on the kerb crawlers, 75 of whom have been dealt with, cautioned or taken to court in the last 15 months, which is the highest number Sheffield has ever seen.
“These men are under no illusion as to what will happen when they are caught.
“From that day onwards they are in some worry, but I don’t have any sympathy at all. It can destroy not only marriages and relationships, but careers as well.
“It stops people becoming teachers, or anything which requires an extended background check.”
“We do get complaints from the public, and I would encourage anyone who does see it to report it on 101.
“That flags it up to me, that flags it up to our command team. They may realise it’s more of a problem than they’re actually seeing at the moment, and it will give a truer picture of the problem or the perceived problems.”
Prostitute support high on agenda to combat the culture of ‘ruling by fear’
When it comes to tackling prostitution, it’s as much about supporting the women as it is prosecuting the kerb-crawlers.
“I ain’t going, because I’ll die if I do,” snaps a woman clutching a bottle of beer as she stands by the roadside, calling out at the police car which rolls up beside her.
Police offer her advice and encourage the woman to seek rehabilitation. PC Taylor says: “The girls are engaged with and supported. They are taken to court on report and summons, and cautioned, and the court will issue an engagement and support order.”
The problem is the women are often in very vulnerable situations, says PC Taylor, and bundling them into the police car will do more harm than good.
We pull up beside a woman in a tracksuit. She is in an abusive relationship and her partner will beat her up if she goes home without money.
“We found her last night with a man in his car. We caught them in the act. So we know she’s got a caution and we could send her home right now,” PC Taylor tells me.
“But if she goes home now, without any money, she will be beaten up.
“He’s ruling her by fear. So we won’t be doing her any favours by taking her into custody. We could report her on summons and then she’ll be in court.
“But then have we done any good? What have we achieved by taking her off the street?
“It’s the way we do it and the way I choose to do it. I can’t speak for other forces. Some other forces probably do enforce it a lot more than us.”
Sheffield Working Women’s Opportunities Project, or SWWOP, on Nursery Street, provides specialist evening street-based outreach to prostitutes, which it says are ‘an extremely socially isolated and hard to reach vulnerable group’.
It estimates as many as 240 prostitutes work Sheffield’s streets, says PC Taylor, but some are seasonal - women who take it up to afford Christmas presents or pay a bill.
PC Taylor adds: “In circumstances where the girl is in an abusive relationship, their partner might stop them going to SWWOP.
A court order changes that, because they don’t want the girl to end up in jail so they let them go. It gives them a few hours away from that relationship.
“It’s very complicated and it’s all intertwined. It’s not as straightforward as some people think.”
The approach is working, though, says PC Taylor. “It is about tolerance to a certain extent. But it doesn’t stop us prosecuting the kerb crawlers,” he added.
“I hope I’m doing some good somewhere. But if you ask the girls, they would probably rather have the 75 punters back.”
Call SWWOP on 0114 275 2040, or to report kerb-crawling or prostitution, call police on 101.