“Be Aware, vigilant and safe.”

After issuing an unprecedented public safety warning to women Friday, Ottawa Police Chief Vern White refused to rule out the possibility that a serial killer is targeting the city’s street prostitutes.

With the downtown aboriginal women’s centre Minwaashin as a backdrop, White urged all women to be increasingly “aware, vigilant and safe,” but refused to say what had prompted the sudden warning.

He did reveal to reporters that investigators have identified “a pattern” in the homicides of city prostitutes, but repeatedly refused to go into detail, suggesting instead that an investigation into the murders was still in its early stages.

The safety warning was White’s initiative and not the result of a request from groups involved with helping prostitutes.

Minwaashin Lodge front line support worker Kimberley Mansfield told the Citizen late Friday that she doesn’t know what prompted White to issue the warning, but noted that women in the Ottawa sex trade have been “uneasy for some time.”

“In light of recent murders and injuries to various women, there is a sense that there is someone who is targeting women,” said Mansfield, who figures only 25 per cent of violent attacks against prostitutes are reported to police.

White said he wasn’t ready to discuss the police investigation.

“I am here at Minwaashin Lodge to speak to Ottawa residents about concerns the Ottawa police has for women’s safety,” he said.

“Our major crime investigators have recently identified a pattern with homicides involving sex-trade workers in our community.

“I am asking women, particularly those involved in the sex trade, to be vigilant and exercise good safety practices,” he added.

White said police don’t yet know whether they are investigating a general pattern of violence toward prostitutes perpetrated by several people or whether one person is responsible.

“There will be a time when we have more information, but it’s not today.”

There have been a spate of attacks against Ottawa prostitutes since the summer of last year and women involved in the street-level sex trade – estimated to be at least 250 in the Vanier-ByWard Market areas.

Jennifer Stewart, 36, was found dead in a Vanier parking lot in August 2010.

Kelly Morrisseau, 27 and pregnant, was found naked and bleeding in a parking lot near Gatineau Park in 2006. She died in hospital and an autopsy showed she had been stabbed at least 12 times while trying to fight off her attacker.

Both were aboriginal and both were knifed to death, evoking the chilling spectre of Jack the Ripper, the notorious late 19thcentury British killer who murdered at least five prostitutes in London, but was never caught.

Prostitutes have complained about two particularly vicious clients.

One flashed a phoney police badge and demanded free sex, threatening arrest if the prostitute refused. The other apparently raped prostitutes at knifepoint.

There are 41 unsolved murders on the Ottawa police books, including several prostitute killings.

The latest involved Leeanne Lawson, who was found dead in a parking lot near King Edward Avenue in September.

There have been other attacks against prostitutes, including one particularly vicious assault, also in September, when a woman was almost strangled. A suspect in that case is in custody charged with attempted murder.

White said his officers will be intensifying efforts at the street level to ensure prostitutes are aware of the safety warning and will use various social service agencies to spread the word.

Outreach worker Mansfield said women are reluctant to report being attacked because they are “criminalized” and fearful of the consequences if they go to police.

“There are various reasons why they don’t report, but being criminalized poses all sorts of other barriers when it comes to reporting attacks. The flaws lie within the criminalization of prostitution.”

Improving the relationship between police and prostitutes is vital, she added.

“There are several really effective officers with the Ottawa force who endeavour to have a good, open communication and dialogue with the women involved in survival sex,” she said.

“One of the most important things we can do is have women feel comfortable and safe enough to go to police to make a report.”

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