Developing a Long-Term Strategy to Deal with Street Prostitution

13th Sep 2015

In his third blog former Detective Superintendent Alan Caton OBE outlines how Suffolk police responded to street prostitution after five young women were brutally murdered. All five women were trapped in a world of prostitution; all were vulnerable and addicted to drugs.

Once the offender was arrested and charged there was a huge relief that the person responsible for these horrific multiple crimes had been caught.

The murderer Steve Wright was subsequently found guilty of all five murders and is now serving a life sentence.

Joint Agency Strategic Group

During the course of the investigation a Joint Agency Strategic Group was set up comprising senior representatives of several agencies, which included police, probation, local authorities, health, mental health. This was a very senior group that was pulled together to ensure that agencies were coordinated during the investigation, that everyday services were available to the people of Ipswich despite the drain on a wide range of police and other partner agency resources.

After Wright was charged, one of the key areas for discussion within this group was to limit the reputational damage to Ipswich, and more widely Suffolk. Both the city and county had been the main headlines on news channels across the world after the murders. The group came up with a number of strategic actions, one of which was to remove prostitution from the streets of Ipswich. This would ensure we would never again experience a repeat of those tragic events.

On Tuesday January 2, 2007, I was tasked by the Area Commander at Ipswich to formulate a proposal for a multi-agency prostitution strategy, the key strategic aim being to remove prostitution from Ipswich streets, in line with the action from the Joint Agency Strategic Group. While initially I was expected to fulfil this task on top of my busy day job as the Operations Manager at Ipswich Police Station, I eventually persuaded the Area Commander that I needed to dedicate some time to this task. I was given 3 weeks.

What was clear from the start was that prostitution is not just a policing problem; if the issue was to be tackled it needed the support of a wide range of agencies.

Throughout the majority of my 30-year police career I had worked in Ipswich and gained considerable experience policing prostitution in the 1980s and 1990s. My experience from that time showed that enforcement activity as a lone strategy did not work. The women working on the streets saw arrest as an occupational hazard; at court they were fined and were then straight back out on the streets to earn money to pay the fine.

Policing activity was inconsistent and was often increased as the residents in the area where prostitution took place wrote and complained to the chief constable and local council.

Police enforcement activity may have had an impact in the short term, but there was never a long-term strategy to deal with this most complex of problems.

Our multi-agency strategy

To develop a multi-agency strategy, a small team was created. This team included myself from the police, a community safety officer from Ipswich Borough Council a representative from the drug and alcohol action team at Suffolk County Council and a Health representative.

This was a most demanding and challenging activity. The issue of prostitution is hugely complex; on the front line are the women who are often marginalised by society, living chaotic lifestyles, often addicted to drugs and alcohol. Behind these women often lay individuals who coerce and incite their behaviour, many are so called ‘partners’ or ‘pimps’. These women are often subject to abuse, violent attacks, robbery and rape.

We saw the development of a new strategy as a real opportunity to impact on this issue for the long term. As the American politician Rahm Emanuel said, “You never let a serious crisis go to waste. And what I mean by that it’s an opportunity to do things you think you could not do before.”

What was experienced in Ipswich was a serious crisis and there is no doubt that people were looking to me and the team to provide a solution to a problem that was said to be ‘the oldest profession’ and one that would never go away.

This was going to be a real opportunity to think differently and to develop an innovative and long-term approach to dealing with street prostitution, ultimately improving the lives of all of those caught up in this harmful and damaging world.

In my next blog I will outline how the strategy was formulated and how it was turned into effective operational activity. The challenge of getting a wide range of agencies to sign up to one single aim and a new approach, I will also outline how we evaluated our success or otherwise.