Merseyside is one of the six metropolitan counties in England, located in North West England. It comprises five boroughs: Knowsley, St Helens, Sefton, Wirral, and the city of Liverpool. One of the most popular events is the Merseyside derby between Everton and Liverpool football clubs, but the most important here is Merseyside pioneering in policies for reduction of drug related harms in Europe. Virtually, in 1980s in Merseyside has been implemented the first model of harm reduction policies and then these policies started spreading throughout Europe and globally.
In September 2014 Shelly Stoops and Tim Keelan, two of the founders of the “Merseyside Model”, have been visited Macedonia and shared their knowledge and experiences about prevention of violence against sex workers with Macedonian police. Shelly Stoops is the operational manager of Safe Place Merseyside, Liverpool Community Health, and independent sexual violence adviser (ISVA) in the UK for sex workers. Tim Keelan is a detective superintendant, with Merseyside police in the UK and he has the responsibility in the police in the UK or in Merseyside, for issues around public protection.
Voskre: The Merseyside model for harm reduction was a pioneer in the field of harm reduction. Can you tell me more about the initiative?
Shelly: Yes, well, the Maryland centre was one of the very first needle exchanges in the country. Merseyside has a long history of being first in a lot of things. Harm reduction was one of those things. And the Merseyside centre is another example of how a good practice is being shared nationally, and internationally, so I am very proud that some of the colleagues I am working with today came from the Maryland centre, and we work alongside each other now today, still doing harm reduction, and really basic things like keeping people alive.
Voskre: How did the idea with the harm reduction start up?
Shelly: Ok, well, because we saw people dying for the lack of simple and cheap things that could be done, like syringe exchange. It wasn’t rocket science, it was something simple that we could do to keep people healthy and to stop the transmission of HIV, so it was about applying a cost-effective model – spend a little to save an awful lot, in fiscal terms, but in terms of people’s lives and in terms of quality of life, it simply kept people alive, and gave them a quality of life. People were no longer losing limbs in their mid twenties, and having leg amputations because of DVT, abscesses, etc. People were not getting HIV and hepatitis, because they had access to free, clean injecting materials, and there’s not a price that you can put on that.
Voskre: How was going on with the development of the harm reduction model?
Shelly: A group of people, as is always, wanted to do the right thing. It was a group of people, who were very committed to the clients that they’ve saved, coming together and seeing that something needed to be done, and then challenging the authorities, to say look this really needs to happen. And shouted long enough and hard enough and making it so, and they did great work and continued to do great work in the field today.
Voskre: What was the response from the public institutions?
Shelly: At first it was hard for them because this was new, and new things are always difficult for people to accept, so they didn’t have an easy time. At first it was a trial, but when people saw the results. There was no going back. Because it was clearly cost effective and saved lives and coexisting with that first harm reduction. The syringe exchange came along the first outreach for sex workers. The service was taken on the street to the women, in the late eighties because we saw that women started to work to pay for drugs, while before they had only been working to provide money for their households and for their families to eat. Now it was about funding heroin addiction, because heroin had just come into the city. So, that service was taken out on the streets to help those women as well, and it was one of the first in the UK to do so, so again, pioneering services.
Voskre: Tim, can you tell us more about the national Ugly Mugs Scheme?
Tim: Yes, the national Ugly Mugs Scheme was developed initially in Australia, and then it was introduced into the UK, and it was first introduced onto Merseyside probably round about 2006, and in 2007 or late 2007-2008. There was a great deal of interest in making a national Ugly Mugs Scheme, so in other words, there are 80 outreach schemes in the UK. And we felt that it would be better if there was an exchange of information between all those respective schemes, because clients travelled across the country, also sex workers travel across the country, and it would be good if there were dangerous people out there, for people on one side of the country to be aware of the risk which were posed by certain individuals who made trouble. So we thought that a national scheme would be beneficial, to not only sex workers but also to police forces. Because police forces may get aware of the information, or some of the information within the Ugly Mugs Alerts, and as the result with the support of central governments and senior police officers, and obviously, the outreach workers and sex workers, we were able to develop a national project which has been running now since about 2008.
It’s an opportunity for people who are involved in sex work, who might previously have not felt confidence in coming forward to the police, to actually provide information to mostly outreach workers around people who they think pose a risk to them. So the risk to sex workers may be from people who would rob them or people who would physically assault them, or who will sexually assault them.
So Ugly Mugs is a form with lots and lots of questions on it which enables the sex worker to describe what the offender looked like, whether he had a car, his clothing, and whether he/she has known him before, and lots of information, really, to be able to hopefully, identify someone who poses a risk not only to that sex worker, who has completed the Ugly Mug report, but also to other sex workers that individual might go on to have contact with.
And the purpose is that the UK network of sex worker projects which manages the scheme, they can use the information which is provided on the initial report and they can provide it then to the police, either without being redacted, or in its original form, or it can be sort of redacted in some one, so it might not necessarily contain the sex workers name, or further details which would enable the police, if she chooses to retain those details to prevent the police to identify him or her. So there are lots of safeguards in place to make sure that the information provided is what the individual sex worker wants to be provided to the police. And in the UK, particularly in Liverpool now, we are finding that more and more sex workers are comfortable in the police, because of that way we work closely in partnership with our local outreach service, which is Armistead, and we see more and more sex workers coming forward and giving all the details, giving her personal details, name and address, etc. In fact, what we are seeing now, because the partnership work has got that good on Merseyside, we see less of the Ugly Mug reports prepared, because women, and it’s mostly women involved in sex work in Liverpool certainly, we are seeing women coming directly to the police rather than to an outreach service, which demonstrates to many that there’s much more confidence in the way the police will respond. People know that they will take their report seriously. And we also sell our successes through the media, so if we have a woman who has been the victim of rape for example, and she comes forward and tells the police about it, and then we are able to prosecute the case through the court and the individual is prosecuted and may well go to prison, we will tell the press about that, and that way it explains to people who would otherwise pose a risk to sex workers, that there’s a risk in doing that, because they know the police will take that seriously, and they may end up in prison if they do something bad to somebody.
Voskre: Can you tell me how the implementation of the model for harm reduction and both the model for Merseyside for sex workers, had influence on the redefinition of the role of the police in the community?
Shelly: Yes, I think that both of them had an effect on the police to think differently, and they do very differently now think about drug users and sex workers, and are seen more as victims. They think very differently about drug users because it was just drug users, and so on, but now they understand there’s a reason for being drug users, and that people don’t just get up in the morning and say: “hey, I’m going to go and use heroin, because that looks like a really good lifestyle!” Something has gone on in people’s lives, there’s been some problematic issue that has taken them to become heroin users, so we have to address the underlying cause, and help people with that problem. If you help people with the problem, the drug use almost takes care of itself. So they now understand that that’s the way you effectively work with drug users – deal with the problem, and the drug use is a secondary issue, really. So, don’t deal with them as criminals, you know, as junkies, and all these other things people do first, and obviously with the sex work, it’s exactly the same issue. You don’t wake up and say “hey, that looks like a really good life! Let’s go and sell myself for 10 euro”. No, nobody wants to do that on the streets. There’s an issue that’s brought them to that, and it’s usually addiction, so those two issues go hand in hand, because street drug use is inextricably bound up to street sex work so we have to look at those two issues together.
Tim: Well, it took some time because attitudes in police forces are, I think, historically somewhat negative towards sex workers. And it took some time to explain what the benefits of the UMS were, what the benefits of working with partnership with Armistead, and the outreach services were, and at the end of the day, it’s mostly about the benefits to the individual sex workers because they are at risk because of the type of work they do. And we’ve managed to overcome the reservations of the police officers, particularly from un-uniformed officers who’ve had most contact with individual sex workers. We’ve explained the risks of those people opposed by certain individuals who would pose a certain risk or danger to sex workers individually. And I think because of the work that we’ve done collectively, with Armistead, there’s now much greater understanding of front line officers for the need to approach this from the public safety point of view. Because the most important thing is that we make people’s lives safer, and we actually prevent people being killed or seriously hurt.
Voskre: Does the Merseyside police have a greater success in dealing with violence against sex workers, compared to other cities in the UK?
Tim: I think we have really good success, we see a percentage of about 70% of offeders convicted who are charged with an offence against a sex worker. The conviction rate is between 65% and 70%. So when you consider how difficult it is, and certainly from my experience, historically, how difficult it is to get some sex worker to go along and give evidence in court, with the stigma that used to be attached and it still is in some places, attached to sex workers, it is difficult for some people to go forward. But we provide a lot of support to them, we have independent sexual violence advisers (ISVA), who provide support, and within the unity team, or our rape investigation team, we have what we call sexual offence liaison officers (SOLO), who know officers as well, and who provide a lot of support to any victim of rape, but also to sex workers. And between the ISVA and the SOLO there is a great deal of support provided to sex workers to enable them to stay engaged in the criminal justice system, because the most important thing is that they get justice, because at the end of the day, not only do they need justice, but it’s also about other people, because people who offend towards sex workers, don’t only offend towards sex workers, they offend towards other people as well. And rape isn’t only about sex it is about power and subjugation and I think it’s really important that in supporting sex workers, you are making them safer, but you are making other people safer as well, because if you do prosecute somebody who is a danger to sex workers you are reducing the danger to other members of society too.
Voskre: This seems to be an successful practice.
Tim: It all depends what you regard as success. I think that success is a number of things – prosecuting effectively the people who are responsible for crimes against sex workers, and if we are able to go through the process to put people who have seriously harmed or injured sex workers into prison, that is a positive outcome. But as far as I am concerned, all the positive effects include all the really effective partnership work that we have and the really increased levels of confidence among sex workers that we have for Merseyside police, because that to me demonstrates that we are doing the right thing as much as it does when we put somebody in prison for doing something dreadful to somebody.
Voskre: You have come here to Macedonia to present the Merseyside Model to the Macedonian police officers. Can you tell me about your impressions from the training? Do you see a possibility for the model to be accepted in Macedonia?
Shelly: I am absolutely heartened by what I’ve seen here in Macedonia over the last couple of days. At first I thought we were going to receive a really hostile reception and I thought they would be closed but I am inspired and heartened by what happened over the last couple of days and the way people have opened up and put their cards on the table and I think that there will be great things coming from this, and they will be very accepting of moving forward and building those relationships with HOPS and with the sex working community. I think only good things can come from the last couple of days and the experience that we’ve had with you all and it’s been amazing to be part of the start of your journey and I look forward to where we are going in the future.
Tim: Yes, it was very interesting over the past two days. I’ve never been to Macedonia before, so I didn’t really know what to expect. But I noticed a lot of very committed police officers in that room, some more than other, but I think that there’s a great potential for much greater partnership work apart from what already took place. But also I think that they can see and it was quite apparent today in the closing session that they can see the benefits from an Ugly Mugs Scheme, because it enables police forces to be aware of additional intelligence and information around the risks posed to people, without necessarily being a great deal of expense. So I understand that it’s difficult to get resources all the time for everything, and this initiative, the UMI, would enable the police to be aware of risks posed to sex workers and others by certain individuals, so I do think that listening to people and talking to people over coffee, that there’s a good deal of enthusiasm about the initiative and I hope it will be taken further forward.
Interviewed by: Voskre Naumoska Ilieva