The Winnipeg Police Service is launching a Counter Exploitation Unit to tackle issues around the sex trade, human trafficking and illegal gaming.

Based largely on what was previously known as the Vice Unit, the new nine-member unit will also focus its efforts on escorts and escort agencies, brothels and massage parlours, as well as ticket scalping and Liquor Control Act offences.

“I have had the opportunity to hear from the community regarding the sex trade and those being sexually exploited,” said chief Devon Clunis.

“Certainly there is more we can do with respect to active enforcement, but the real opportunity here is for closer connections and co-operation with community stakeholders as we tackle this issue.”

To that end, the police service is also creating a two-person team to work in the community to address sex-trade related concerns, create relationships with sex-trade workers and develop trust between sex-trade workers and police.

“Our focus has changed to targeting people that are coming into the community and exploiting the citizens of this community,” said Sgt. Gene Bowers. In addition, Bowers said, officers are “then trying to help the people being exploited.”

That’s good news for Christine and Laura Paul, who live in the William Whyte neighbourhood where the effects of prostitution are a daily reality.

The grandmother and granddaughter pair said the sex trade is so commonplace in the area, any woman on the street can be mistaken for a prostitute.

“Johns will just drive by me and just like, drive real slow, and then sometimes they’ll just follow me,” said Christine.

Police are working hard to change that. In the past four months, officers have arrested 53 Johns, more than are typically arrested in an entire year by the force.

Clunis said arrests are only half the battle. Inroads have to be made in communities to make them safer, he said.

“In the past, people have said, ‘We’re just police officers. We’ll deal with the crime.’ Well, I say no. I say, the Winnipeg Police Service and the RCMP know we’re about creating the right culture in society,” said Clunis. “We can be a catalyst to change.”

That attitude is welcomed by Bobette Shoffner, the executive director of Mount Carmel Clinic, which operates a safe space for sex trade workers called Sage House.

Shoffner said in the past three years, the number of women who have turned to Sage House, has doubled.

“Taking women who have been in traumatic situations and coming from traumatic situations and re-traumatizing them by arresting them and putting them back on the street once they’ve served their time really doesn’t solve any problems,” she said.

Laura Paul agrees. “They need to know their life matters,” she said.

Anyone with sex trade issues in their community are urged to contact the Counter Exploitation Unit at 204-986-3464.

People can also fill out the online Prostitution Complaint Form by visiting the Winnipeg Police Service website.