Winnipeg police are about to get a little more personal with the sex-trade issue in the North End.
Police announced Friday the formation of a two-person team that will monitor the troublesome area in an attempt to address prostitution in the city's low-income region. The team, with the RCMP and community residents, will form relationships with sex-trade workers to try making the streets safer for all involved.
The two non-enforcement city police officers will be part of the department's nine-member counter-exploitation unit. The idea is not to arrest prostitutes but target "johns" and those taking advantage of the prostitutes.
It's believed this approach -- having police build relationships with prostitutes to help target their exploiters -- is the first of its kind in Canada.
Sgt. Gene Bowers, who oversees the counter-exploitation unit, said he believes this will give police a better grasp of where the control lies in the city's sex trade.
"(The two officers) will get to know the backstory," Bowers said. "Instead of just driving up and asking someone to leave the area, if they're in front of a school, we want to get to know that person and find out what the situations that they're dealing with are, and why are they caught in the sex trade."
Bowers said he believes the solution to the problem is deeper than just arresting prostitutes. That hasn't been effective, he said, and often leads to the same people going back on the streets. He said he hopes the initiative will help connect those in the sex-trade cycle to support groups and social-work organizations that specialize in addressing the circumstances that have led them to this path.
Between June and September this year, police arrested 53 men for communicating for the purpose of prostitution. The arrests resulted in police seizure of 34 vehicles. Another 140 potential johns were identified and interviewed by patrol officers.
Despite anti-prostitution efforts such as cameras, signage and community foot patrols, area residents report the sex trade continues. Annette Champion-Taylor, the volunteer and program co-ordinator for the William Whyte Residents' Association, lives in the area and is frustrated with the constant sex-trade activity near her home.
"(Everyone) is starting to realize what we're doing isn't working. We really need to try something new -- whatever it takes to make these girls have a better life and try to get them out of the sex trade, definitely," Champion-Taylor said. "Residents don't want to see these girls out in the middle of winter, 30-below, freezing to death. They don't want to see them all cracked out on drugs.
"And then for the children, just because this area is an impoverished area doesn't mean that these kids have to be exposed to this on a regular basis."
Asked whether it's the Winnipeg Police Service's responsibility to direct sex-trade workers to outside assistance, Chief Devon Clunis said it's a group effort involving the community, social services and law enforcement.
"In the past, people have said, 'OK, we're just police officers and we'll deal with the crime.' I say no. I say we're about creating the right culture in society. We can be a catalyst for change.
"It's not just about fighting crime, it's about creating a healthy environment in our respective jurisdictions."