ipeg police say they made an error when communicating about the way they deal with sex buyers on city streets and whom they greenlight for a related court-diversion program.
“In the event that we ever arrest somebody for trying to obtain sexual services from someone under the age of 18, the police would never refer that person to the Prostitution Offender Program run by the Salvation Army,” Sgt. Rick McDougall said Friday.
McDougall, head of the counter exploitation unit, said someone exploiting a youth for sex would be arrested, charged and named publicly.
“When it is somebody who’s under age – under the age of 18, 16, 14 – the Criminal Code does provide additional measures and additional charges,” he said.
“Hopefully we can clear this up now.”
It happened at a Sept. 6 news conference, where police shared the results of Project Guardian.
That’s when McDougall told a news conference his team arrested 34 men during a summer sweep of street sex buyers, also known as “Johns.”
More information was included in a media release the same day: “During the period of June 16, 2019 to August 30, 2019, the Winnipeg Police Service Counter Exploitation Unit focused on Project Guardian; a proactive project targeting those who choose to exploit the vulnerable and underaged for sexual services,” it said.
Additionally, in response to a question from APTN News, McDougall said 13 was the average age of girls that become ensnared in the sex trade.
But police now say no minors were involved in Project Guardian, that only some of the men arrested are eligible for the court diversion program, and names aren’t released as a matter of policy.
Ashlee Mercredi was shocked when she read APTN‘s reports and organized a protest rally in response.
She said beforehand police contacted her to clarify their not-naming policy does not apply to men caught with minors.
But that didn’t allay her concerns.
“These could be teachers, doctors, even police officers,” the Cree woman said of the accused.
“We, as citizens, should be told.”
Mercredi suggested protecting the men made life more dangerous for women and girls – especially Indigenous women like her.
“Violence against Indigenous women is extremely high,” she said, prior to leading her small group chanting and waving signs past police headquarters.
“(I’m) 10 times more likely to go missing.”
Police were aware of the rally and reached out to APTN, as well.
“We have had a 20-plus-year partnership with the Salvation Army in regards to the Prostitution Offender Program,” McDougall added. “We meet regularly with them and we are on the same page.”
He said men accepted into the program see their charges dropped if they complete it successfully.
But Mercredi didn’t like that, either.
“Police are providing more resources for these criminals than people that are in the community,” she said.
“They’re told their hands are clean after a one-day program? That’s ridiculous.”
Mercredi also questioned why the Salvation Army was involved.
“Religion has no place in reconciliation with Indigenous peoples,” she said of the court-diversion program offered by the Christian-based organization.