July 17, 1995

Gerry Bellett

Teen prostitution spreading into suburbs

Vice squad also faces cut in number of officers, lack of technological tools in battle against pimps

Vancouver's street prostitution problem has increased dramatically in the last few years, but the number of police officers assigned to the city's vice squad has been more than halved.

The vice squad had about 20 members in the early 1980s, dealing with a prostitution population that inhabited only small areas of the city.

But then came the effects of a Supreme Court of Canada ruling that prostitutes could not be convicted unless they were found to be pressing and persistent and police found themselves virtually powerless to lay soliciting charges.

As a result, street prostitutes are now ranging across Vancouver as far as the borders with Burnaby and are establishing themselves in New Westminster.

And the vice squad is down to only eight members.

Compounding its problems is the fact that many prostitutes -- young girls who are still legally children -- don't live in Vancouver, forcing the squad to spend 75 per cent of its time working outside the city's limits dealing with suburban prostitutes and their pimps.

Sgt. Bill Openshaw, the officer in charge of the squad, says Vancouver has no choice but to operate outside Vancouver.

"The problems are in the suburbs, in Surrey and Richmond and Coquitlam, but because the girls come and work in Vancouver we've inherited them.

"We get cooperation from other forces, if we ask for it, but the bottom line is that once they show up in Vancouver it's our problem -- we have to do all the investigation," said Openshaw.

The situation has become so serious the attorney-general's ministry is considering setting up a special vice unit to operate within the Lower Mainland, which would involve other municipal and RCMP officers being attached to Vancouver vice.

"It's something we are going to have to do," said Openshaw.

The New Westminster police department hasn't waited. It has already assigned two officers to assist Vancouver vice-squad members when they are operating in that city.

Pooling police resources is nothing new. The various drug squads operating in the Lower Mainland always include RCMP and municipal police officers. Openshaw sees no reason why vice units can't be the same.

The vice squad needs more than additional officers, however.

The squad is functioning -- technologically -- in a different era.

It doesn't have even the crudest of computers to store intelligence on pimps and prostitutes, although it now has approval to buy a system.

The squad doesn't even have its own fax machine but uses a machine shared with the drug squad and various administrative and supervisory sections of the police department at 312 Main St.

There are only three fax machines in the whole of that building.

(When the drug squad finally received a computer two months ago it turned out to be a machine incapable of handling modern programs.)

If the vice squad requests pictures of a suspect from another department, they are faxed and practically useless for identification.

"I guess we could use something that would provide us with proper imaging so the pictures would be of some use," said Openshaw.

Some weeks ago, a bureaucrat in the attorney-general's ministry discovered the squad's lack of elementary computer facilities and provided $5,000 so officers could buy a system.

That will allow the squad to access other police departments' data on pimps and prostitutes, many of whom travel between Vancouver, Calgary, Edmonton and other cities.

"Often, a pimp is well-known to another department and if we have a problem with him here we need to get as much information on him as quickly as possible," Openshaw said.

There's also a need for extra communications equipment for officers working outside Vancouver, he said, because their police radios won't work beyond city limits. This can result in officers being in dangerous situations, with no way of calling for help.

After an incident involving a pimp where an officer felt he was in danger and couldn't call for help, they did get a cellular phone, but it must be shared by three officers.

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Created: January 15, 1996
Last modified: July 2, 1997

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