Police in Winnipeg are changing the way they deal with the city's sex trade — building the trust of women who are selling sex, while going after their customers.

Since it was launched in November, the Winnipeg Police Service's Counter-Exploitation Unit has been reaching out to sex-trade workers and identifying cases of exploitation and human trafficking.

"We knew these women were being victimized to begin with. With us arresting them, we were just re-victimizing them and it … made it difficult for them to talk to the police and actually get the help that they need," says Det.-Sgt. Darryl Ramkissoon, who heads up the unit.

Rather than arresting the sex-trade workers, Ramkissoon said officers are talking to them and finding out more about their situations.

"They'll ask, like, 'Are you out here on your own? Is anybody forcing you to be here?'" he told CBC News during an exclusive ride-along.

"If we do come across a human trafficking situation here, it's usually more simplified. It starts off as a boyfriend-girlfriend relationship and kind of evolves."

Street prostitution a big problem

Some of the police unit's members conduct longer investigations, while others patrol the streets at night, recording licence plate numbers on johns' vehicles, warning customers of the consequences of buying sex, and asking the sex workers if they are OK.

"Other cities have a larger escort problem, massage parlour problem, bawdy house problems. Winnipeg, we have a little bit of everything, but our biggest problem is street prostitution right now," Ramkissoon said.

"On a busy night, you will see several girls on almost every corner here and you will see almost like a traffic jam."

To prove that human trafficking exists, the victim has to be scared for her or his safety.

However, Ramkissoon said fear often keeps victims from coming forward.

"A lot of time, unfortunately, the girls don't want to go through with the court process, so it kind of ends there," he said.

Ramkissoon said sex-trade workers are becoming more comfortable talking to police about any bad situations they've had, while the officers offer them help and access to resources.

"Over the last little while, we've had at least approximately 45 women that the team has spoken to. Six of them have gone away from the trade, and at least one of them has volunteered to get out of the sex trade," he said.