This project examined the role of the Sex Work Liaison Officer in West Yorkshire Police, and focused on developing an evidence base to assist development of similar roles.
Policing has direct and profound effects on the vulnerability of sex workers. As most forms of sex work are criminalised in the UK, policing is a key cause of sex worker vulnerability. Yet the police also play an important role in managing and mitigating sex worker vulnerability; and are responsible for action on crimes committed against sex workers and for safeguarding those deemed especially vulnerable. One of the ways in which some police forces have sought to reconcile these tensions is through designated Sex Worker Liaison Officers (SWLOs) who work closely with sex workers and support agencies to build trust and improve responses to sex work-related crime.
Purpose of the research
This study explored policing vulnerability through an in-depth study of one SWLO role in West Yorkshire Police (WYP), based in the city of Leeds. Working with police, sex workers and a range of support services for sex workers, the researchers focused on developing an evidence base to assist implementation and development of similar roles in other police forces.
What we did
The study comprised the following strands:
- Co-production workshops with online and street sex workers as well as a sex worker collective, to support development of research tools and analysis of findings
- Analysis of National Ugly Mugs (NUM) self-report scheme data for Leeds
- Analysis of West Yorkshire Police data on outcomes in SWLO cases
- Interviews and focus groups with 20 key informant stakeholders including police officers, sex work support professionals and representatives of community groups
- Interviews with ten sex workers who identified as female including indoor, street and migrant sex workers
- Ethnographic insights generated through shadowing of SWLO, diary-keeping by the SWLO and regular meetings with stakeholders
- Arts-based workshops with around 15 to 20 sex workers, gathering views on the SWLO role and co-producing resources to highlight key findings. This element was undertaken in partnership with Basis Yorkshire and artist Lucy Barker.
- The role of SWLO has major benefits in how sex workers’ vulnerability to crime can be mitigated by local police forces.
- The SWLO plays a vital role in building trust with sex workers and ensuring more crimes committed against this group enter the criminal justice system, although considerable barriers to reporting remain.
- If approached with due care and consideration of sex workers’ perspectives, the role provides significant ‘intelligence value’ for investigating serious crimes, offering an alternative approach to resource-intensive surface-level displacement of anti-social behaviour.
- Increased reporting is an important first step, but in terms of delivering ‘good outcomes’ for sex workers in the criminal justice system, the SWLO’s role is limited without similar improvement in investigations and prosecutions. At present, most crime reports result in ‘no further action’.
- Whilst beneficial in certain respects, concentration of good practice in responding to sex workers could also be limiting, with sustainability a key risk where that good practice is centred on one officer.
- The effectiveness of the SWLO role is highly dependent on the local and national blend of enforcement against sex workers and support for this group as victims of crime. The role offers a useful model for police responses to those who are vulnerable to crime and also positioned in law as criminal.
- There were benefits in the purpose and duties of the SWLO role being approached flexibly, but core tasks, priorities, responsibilities, and outcomes could be standardised further to enhance effectiveness.
- Concerns about street sex work often drive SWLO priorities. Resourcing and governance arrangements should enable the role to operate in ways that are aligned with the evidence base on sex worker vulnerability.
Working with sex workers and SWLOs we have co-produced a research informed Role Descriptor for SWLOs which has been used to develop similar SWLO roles in other police forces; we have contributed to the forthcoming National Police Chiefs Council (NPCC) guidance on the policing of sex work. We have also produced a briefing document for the College of Policing Knowledge Hub. If you would like a copy, please contact Kate Brown or Sharon Grace.
Download the SWLO Role Descriptor, and please let us know if you found it useful:
Note: images used
The project images here with quotes were co-produced with sex workers and interdisciplinary artist Lucy Barker. These images are available for police use and adaptation, please contact Kate Brown or Sharon Grace. Please feel free to get in touch with us for further information on any aspect of the project or associated documentation.
The project ran from 1 June 2018 to 31 June 2019.