It was just after midnight one evening last month when two undercover cops patrolling an alley off the eastern Danforth, near Dawes Road, came across what they considered a rare sight on their turf – a prostitute and her client, in flagrante delicto.
“When the officer tried to stop them, the john got into a punch-out with the undercover officers,” said Toronto Police Detective Chris Higgins, who leads the dozen-member major crime unit in 54 Division. The division decided to hold a “john sweep” and, sure enough, nabbed 21 johns and one prostitute in a single night along Danforth between Woodbine and Victoria Park.
Dubbed Operation Trick or Treat, the sweep was the first in recent memory for this neighbourhood and raised troubling questions. Is it evidence of a rise in prostitution here? Or are police just putting new resources to an age-old problem?
“We have seen a bit of an increase over the years,” said Steve Minos, chairman of the Danforth Village Business Improvement Area.
“If they [police] can eliminate it, it’s going to be better for business, it’s going to better for residents, it’s going to be better for everybody.”
The eastern Danforth is an attic community to the tony Beaches to the south and the poorer cousin of Greektown to its west. This is a Danforth unto itself.
Between Woodbine and Victoria Park, industrial lands snake along the rail tracks on the south side of Danforth, home to repair shops and blue-collar industry. Along the street, instead of Starbucks, you’ll find seedy bars where the beer is cheap and the lights are turned down low. Some shops are vacant, along with the apartments above.
There has been a cleanup effort in neighbourhood crime of late, local City Councillor Janet Davis (Ward 31, Beaches-East York) said. There were more police patrols this year, leading to a drop in nearly all categories of crime, according to recent police data. A prostitute sweep, as such, fits the bill.
One former sex worker, Anastasia Kuzyk of the Sex Workers Alliance of Toronto, and John Fenn, who runs a “john school” treatment program for men using the sex trade, both said in interviews that prostitutes aren’t new to that stretch of the Danforth, though a police crackdown seems to be.
Ms. Kuzyk says the phenomenon dates back at least a decade. “I remember when I used to take the bus home – yeah, hookers take the bus home too – I used to take the bus along the Danforth and I’d see a smattering of girls,” she said. “They’ve always been there.”
But, “We’re not like 51 or 14 division, where you see [prostitutes] out and about all the time,” Det. Higgins said, referring to the police divisions who handle the active sex trades in the east downtown and Parkdale, respectively.
Councillor Davis said the neighbourhood has had its ups and downs. “We have not historically had any prostitution problems,” she said. “There have been concerns about increased drug use, for sure.”
But while sweeps typically might move around prostitution rings, the Danforth’s sex workers are of a different stripe, largely drug addicts. The women, dressed in track pants and hoodies, willing to turn any trick for as little as $10 to earn money for their next fix, police say. Off the record, neighbours in the quiet, family-friendly residential area to the north of Danforth report being propositioned by young women in broad daylight.
Police maintain that the hot hours begin at 12:30 a.m., peak around 1 or 2 a.m., and wrap up by 4 a.m. It’s during that time that johns seem to flock to the Danforth for cheap sex. “About half of [the johns] were cab drivers driving marked cabs, on duty, just pulling over to the side of the road saying, let’s basically go for a quickie in the back lane in my cab,” Det. Higgins said. “I mean, we’re not talking Jarvis Street hookers or Church Street hookers, with the high boots that look like they’re worth 600 bucks an hour. These are just crack hookers.”
As such, Mariana Valverde, a professor and director of the University of Toronto’s centre for criminology, believes that such sweeps unfairly target the most marginalized in Toronto – those who seek out cheap sex – while the middle-class johns and their escort services operate without any problems.
Though half of the johns nabbed in Operation Trick or Treat were cabbies, none was actually named John – there was a Joseph, a Shawn and a Michael, as well as an Asif, three Mohammeds of various spellings, and a Rasaratnam, among others.
“I think it’s unfortunate that these sweeps are continuing to happen, because they do target men and women who are quite vulnerable,” Prof. Valverde said.
“[For police,] it’s an easy way to say you’ve worked hard, and here are all those charges you’ve laid,” she said, adding only a few cases will likely go to court and that any decent lawyer can successfully argue entrapment. She advocates the decriminalization of prostitution to address its root causes, accompanied by social programming.
That wish list resonates with Peter Selby, the clinical director of addictions at Toronto’s Centre for Addition and Mental Health. “If [only] it was as simple as police make it, where you just round them up and that solves the problem. Well, it doesn’t,” Dr. Selby said. “That’s like going into the garden, seeing a weed and just chopping the top off.”
Nevertheless, police are planning more sweeps. Police spokeswoman Wendy Drummond said it’s up to each division to develop strategies. At 54 Division, the buck stops at Det. Higgins, who figures that a john or two off the streets is better than nothing.
For business owners, it’s a welcome move that police are acting on a problem they have long reported – even if it’s only a short-term solution. “I don’t think our area is any better or worse than any other area in regards to that,” said Danforth Village’s Mr. Minos. “I just like the fact that they’re focusing on that type of cleanup.”
Listen up and fly right
First-time offenders have the option to attend “john school” and see their charges dropped. The school, a one-day session educating attendees about the realities of the Toronto sex trade, is run by John Fenn through Toronto’s Streetlight Support Services. The re-arrest rate for “students” is under 2 per cent, though Mr. Fenn concedes the re-offence rate is likely higher.
Nevertheless, Mr. Fenn’s statistics paint an interesting picture of the 183 men caught up in this year’s sweeps and sent to his school: 74 are single; 75 are married; others are separated or divorced. None are widowers. Only 14 are unemployed, and 127 reside within Toronto.
Johns are almost invariably arrested outside their own neighbourhood. “They don’t want their neighbour to see them,” Mr. Fenn explains. And of his johns, 67 were arrested in Parkdale, 16 along Kingston Road, 13 along Lake Shore Boulevard, and three along the Junction. None on Jarvis, none on Dundas Street, and none near the airport. Eighty-four were swept up in “other” zones.