UK: Mariana Popa Killed Working as a Prostitute after Police Drove Her and Others Off the Streets

Mariana Popa was fatally stabbed on her beat. Fellow sex workers say a Met police campaign to drive them off the streets had forced her to work on her own, leading to her murder.

Mariana Popa
Mariana Popa, a Romanian, had been in England only three weeks when she was killed in Redbridge, east London. Campaigners say police patrols forced women to work on their own, endangering their safety. Photograph: Mark St George/REX

By and on January 18, 2014—
“Shortly after midnight Mariana Popa staggered into Chicken & Pizza 4U and collapsed. Moments earlier, the 24-year-old had been stabbed in the chest while working as a prostitute on Ilford Lane, an austere thoroughfare in the east London borough of Redbridge that for years has doubled as a strip for sex workers.

The murder of Mariana on 29 October received cursory media coverage, yet it is only as further details have emerged that the killing has reinvigorated the long-running debate around prostitution and, specifically, prompted fresh questions over how police approach it.

Friends and campaigners are increasingly eager to blame an unlikely source for Popa’s death: the police. They argue that the Romanian’s death has exposed the consequences of traditional enforcement tactics and grimly articulates the need for a mature debate on society’s attitude towards prostitution.

Now two of Britain’s most senior police chiefs concerned with the issue have entered the fray, denouncing the police approach to prostitution as a mess and saying that operations to tackle the trade are “counterproductive” and likely to put the lives of women at risk. Dismissing legislation as “outdated”, they call for a change in the law to allow a group of women to work together.

Chris Armitt, the national police lead on prostitution in England and Wales, also called for a review of enforcement tactics aimed at prosecuting prostitutes. “We are not going to enforce our way out of this problem. It simply won’t work. I feel it would be good to allow a small group of women to work together, otherwise it creates a situation where they are working away from other human support. I think the disadvantages of working alone outweigh the advantages.”

Armitt, the assistant chief constable of Merseyside police, added that attempting to eradicate the trade was futile. “We are not going to stop prostitution. It goes back to Roman times and goes on in every country in the world.”

His concern is echoed by Martin Hewitt, the lead for adult sexual offences at the Association of Chief Police Officers, who said that prosecuting sex workers while using them as traditional sources of intelligence exposed inconsistencies in the strategy.

“We are policing a 21st-century style of prostitution with legislation that’s fairly dated. We have very contradictory actions. On the one hand we sit down with sex workers asking them to trust us and give us information. On the other hand we are doing enforcement actions. We are all working off outdated legislation,” he added.

Hewitt, the deputy assistant commissioner of Scotland Yard, also condemned some of the high-profile police operations such as brothel raids as superficial and offering little value other than as a media stunt.

On the night she was murdered, friends believe Popa was working late to pay off a fine for soliciting issued as part of a police campaign to drive prostitutes from the street. More crucially, she was working alone.

Sex workers usually operate in a group for protection, pointing out dodgy clients to one another, identifying men who have turned violent in the past. Popa would have needed the group more than most – she had arrived from Romania just three weeks earlier.

When Popa was killed, the Met were running an enforcement campaign, Operation Clearlight, against sex workers in Redbridge, particularly Ilford Lane. To avoid detection by patrolling officers, the women were forced to work on their own.

Some are unequivocal that Clearlight contributed to Popa’s death. Georgina Perry of Open Doors, an NHS project working with sex workers in east London, said: “During the enforcement operation, women were running from police and hiding behind cars to avoid them. I have seen women taking their shoes off and leaving them on the pavement so that they can run away fast from the police.” She said that women did not even dare to carry condoms because officers could use them as evidence that the women were soliciting for sex.

Monica Abdala of Redbridge Street Pastors, which has been helping sex workers on Ilford Lane since 2010, said her organisation had met the police to share concerns that enforcement operations were endangering women.

“The police were constantly out there [on patrol], that was the one thing that influenced what happened to Mariana. It does not help when the police do operations, arresting women, arresting men. It makes the women spread out; it makes the women work harder. They have to go up alleys where there are no cameras.”

Armitt is among a number of high-ranking officers gravely uncomfortable with the tactic of enforcement operations against on-street sex workers. “We know that men who attack sex workers go on to attack other women. Where there have been robust and overt police enforcement operations, shortly afterwards we see that incidents of violence against sex workers increase.”

But Clearlight continued after Popa’s murder. Six days before Christmas, barely 100m from the fast-food outlet where she collapsed, an Open Doors team found residents battering another Romanian sex worker. The woman said she was simply hiding behind a wall to avoid a police patrol. The residents claimed she was attempting to break into their property. The woman was beaten so mercilessly that she required hospital treatment. She was due to return to Romania the following day. The police did not pursue charges.

Perry alleges that police can be callous towards sex workers. “I have at least three reports of women trying to report crimes against them going into a police station and basically being told: ‘It’s your lookout, it’s your problem, what do you expect?'” From one perspective, however, Clearlight has worked. Hardly anyone is working the strip. Local police proudly reveal how earlier this month there were four consecutive days when no prostitutes were seen on Ilford Lane.

The result is that, for now, the community that has been campaigning for sex workers to leave appears to have won, despite police accepting that the prostitutes have merely been displaced.

Inspector Bob Lands at Redbridge says that police have received letters of praise from residents for targeting sex workers but is also quick to express doubt over the enforcement campaign. “We are in a difficult position. We see the girls as victims, and enforcement isn’t always the way to work hand in hand with that. Fining prostitutes isn’t the best answer, as it perpetuates the cycle of reoffending.”

Abdala cites a conversation she had with a sex worker last Tuesday who was desperately trying to pay off fines totalling £1,350. Such arrears, she says, will almost certainly lead to a woman taking more risks as she solicits business while hoping to evade the police. The baffling nature of the law – it is not illegal to work alone indoors but is illegal to work in a group – is not lost on Armitt: “This makes the individual sex worker vulnerable to rape, murder.”

Despite the considerable evidence that enforcement endangers women, Operation Clearlight continues. In the Loxford area of Redbridge, which includes Ilford Lane, the number of prostitution cautions issued last year rose by almost 70% year on year. Operation Clearlight resulted in 32 arrests.

Latest figures relating to Clearlight reveal that, since last September, eight prostitutes have been arrested for prostitution offences, along with 17 men for kerb crawling, seven of whom have been charged and are due to appear at Redbridge magistrates court next Friday.

At the same time there is a backdrop of violence against the sex workers of Ilford Lane. Every woman interviewed by Abdala’s organisation had been a victim of violence. “Last year we saw more than 200 women – every single one had experienced violence against them,” she said. Such a sustained level of violence might appear shocking, but does not surprise those familiar with the risks of on-street prostitution. Popa was the 138th sex worker to have been murdered in the UK since 1990.

A packed audience gathered on Monday night at St Anne’s Church, Soho, to hear senior figures from Scotland Yard justify the recent crackdown on sex workers in London’s historic red-light district. The mood was tense, prostitutes divulging how last month’s brothel raids had seen one woman dragged from her flat in her underwear; another recounted how 40 officers stormed her digs with dogs.

Before the raids, the Met had tipped off the media, inviting photographers to document the operation. Some women were aghast that their photos had appeared in the press.

Hewitt concedes that such raids can be gimmicks with little inherent police value. “Brothel raids are great at achieving good pictures. The whole objective is to try to resolve the problem. I’m not sure that this kind of activity provides us with a sustainable solution. A straightforward raid doesn’t necessarily attack all aspects of the issue.”

The figures appear to corroborate such criticism. Eighteen months of intelligence gathered against Soho’s sex workers as part of Operation Demontere, which targeted people using businesses as a front for handling stolen goods, resulted in not one trafficking case being identified. Only three women in brothels were charged with handling stolen goods. Undercover officers were deployed as sellers of stolen mobile phones and other goods.

One Soho maid embroiled in the raids said: “The vice squad used to visit the Soho flats every three months, take down the girls’ names and addresses, ask if there were any problems and then leave. It’s not like that now. I think the police need to turn round and say sorry to those girls and think about the consequences of their actions.”

Another Soho sex worker, Vicky, 31, from Poland, who is unemployed following last month’s raids, said the trade was now too unsafe following the closure notices given to some sex flats during the police crackdown. “Now I cannot work and my lifestyle has changed completely. In the flat in Soho I was safe and secure. We had cameras and if I didn’t like the look of someone the maid didn’t open the door. I drink water, not alcohol, and my only vice is three cigarettes a day. As sex workers in Soho, we don’t take drugs and we don’t sell drugs. We only sell sex.” Of the Soho flats used for sex work, 15 have been closed as a result of the raids last month; 25 are still open.

Niki Adams of the English Collective of Prostitutes, which is campaigning against the Soho brothel closures, said: “Mass arrests and criminalisation need to stop.”

It is England’s second city that offers the most obvious way forward for the Met. In Birmingham, the police responded to concerns from sex workers by ditching the use of asbos and aggressive policing tactics in favour of “softly-softly” tactics. The change in stance in 2012 is credited with vastly improving the sex workers’ safety.

A spokeswoman for the city’s Anawim women’s centre said: “All the asbo stuff did was simply move the women around without solving anything. When the police were enforcing a lot, it did increase the violence because women were jumping in cars without checking. Sometimes there would be three or four men in a car and they were getting gang- raped.”

Armitt believes that the use of asbos against sex workers simply drove them underground. “Asbos are not an effective remedy for policing street sex work,” he said.

Yet, even in Birmingham, new policing priorities have prompted a rise in enforcement operations that has prompted consternation among sex workers.

In Edinburgh, too, the era of tolerance seemingly ended with a series of police raids on saunas last summer. Progressive Edinburgh had even introduced a tolerance zone for prostitutes in 2001. When that was axed following opposition from residents it provoked a 400% increase in reports of violence against sex workers, according to the sex-worker advocacy group, Scot-Pep.

Meanwhile, concern surrounds the Home Office-funded Ugly Mugs scheme, which was launched in July 2012 and allows sex workers to anonymously report attacks but whose funding is due to expire in April. Through the scheme, more than 400 crimes against sex workers were reported between July 2012 and July 2013, of these 106 were sexual assaults and 68 were rapes. London had the highest number of incidents, with 84, including 25 sexual assaults and 14 rapes.

The muddled approach to tackling prostitution has inevitably raised questions over the government’s attitude while simultaneously encouraging fresh demands to criminalise the user. Sweden has controversially pioneered such an approach, with Norway following suit – and France last month. Elsewhere, Canada has overturned the law banning brothels, arguing that it prevents women from working together in a safe environment, while New Zealand has decriminalised sex work. Here, the Home Office remains unswervingly intransigent on the issue, insisting that there are no plans to review prostitution laws.”

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