Ottawa sex trade customers, you've got mail

October 2, 2007

Ottawa police are literally sending home the message that customers of the city's street-level sex trade aren't welcome in its neighbourhoods.

Starting next week, a special "community safety letter" will be mailed to the residence of any driver who is stopped by police while talking to prostitutes in certain Ottawa neighbourhoods, Ottawa police announced Tuesday.

"The letter is geared to inform the driver of the vehicle, the potential john, that their activity is not wanted in the concerned neighbourhood," said police Supt. Gilles Larochelle. "It's a letter that educates the individual."

The letter warns the driver that there is a "clear correlation" between street prostitution and drug use and that there are health concerns such as HIV and hepatitis. It also says community members are concerned about children finding used needles and condoms in playgrounds and about increased traffic.

Patrol officers have been told that if they witness a car that appears to be in a neighbourhood to solicit prostitutes, they should talk to and identify the driver. They should also make sure he was speaking with a prostitute, said Larochelle, who confirmed that speaking with a prostitute is not illegal. The letter would then be sent to the driver's home.

That concerns Jack Mackinnon, president of the Civil Liberties Association, National Capital Region.

He said the program is well-intentioned, but infringes on people's rights.

"Privacy is a very important thing," he said, adding that the job of police is to enforce the law, not morals.

Nevertheless, the program has wide support from residents of inner city neighbourhoods plagued by drugs and prostitution.

Community residents suggested the letter

In fact, police said it was residents who suggested the program in the first place.

Cheryl Parrott, chair of the security committee for the Hintonburg Community Association, said her group pushed for it after seeing a similar letter used by police in Toronto.

She said street-level prostitution and associated drug problems leave behind debris that has a very negative impact on the community.

"That debris is condoms, used condoms, squishy used condoms, it's syringes, it's crack pipes and it's very unsafe for the community and the children in the community," said Parrott.

Christine Leadman, who represents the Hintonburg neighbourhood called the program a "great initiative" that will prevent illegal activities.

"Basically the money comes from the john to support a drug habit, and when you have the drug habit, then you get the drug dealers and then the crack houses," she said, adding that she is not concerned about the infringement on people's privacy.

"Liberties are overtaken when you engage in illegal activities," she said. "When you're engaging in prostitution and supporting the drug trade, I think that argument goes out the window."

The program has also won praise from Gordon Keith, president of the Cartier-Vanier Business Improvement Association, who said he wants a clean and safe neighbourhood free of prostitutes that will attract new businesses.

"If there's no johns there, the prostitutes won't be there either," he said. "So let's attack the root of the problem."