Prostitute or police officer? We join operation to crackdown on sex work
- Credit: Archant
The area around Rosary Road, north of Norwich city centre, has long been associated with drug taking and prostitution. But police are now trying a new tactic - posing as prostitutes.
Sarah has only been standing on St Matthews Road for five minutes when a man in a dark car pulls up and asks her to join him for a chat.
He parks up and beckons her to a nearby alleyway.
But he has picked the wrong woman.
The 26-year-old is an undercover police officer, out to catch kerb crawlers.
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By the time he realises something is awry he is surrounded by police vans.
Tonight we have joined police on one of the many patrols happening over the next three months, aimed at curtailing the illegal sex trade in Norwich.
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Sitting in Bethel Street police station, Sergeant Mark Shepherd runs the six officers through the plan for the evening.
A plain-clothed female officer, Sarah, will pose as a prostitute to find kerb crawlers trying to buy sex. A second plain clothed officer will be stationed close by for support.
Sgt Shepherd runs through a list of people police have previously identified as kerb crawlers.
One is a man who offers to drive sex workers around to meet punters, in exchange for them letting him watch. Others include men caught doing repeated laps around the Rosary Road area.
The team of officers head out and soon notice a woman hanging around on the corner of St James Close, a well known pick up point.
By 7.30pm she is still on the corner so police approach for a chat.
Sgt Shepherd tells her that if she doesn't move on she will be given a warning.
As we drive away, Sgt Shepherd explains that most of the women working on the street are doing so to fund heroin addictions.
Often they are not only buying drugs for themselves but for boyfriends also suffering addiction.
"The sex industry in Norwich funds the illegal drug trade and creates a demand for class A substances," he says. "This leads to a huge amount of violence, knife crime and trafficking in Norwich. The money being paid for sex inevitably ends up in the pockets of dangerous drug dealers."
The undercover officer heads to St Matthews Road. She soon radios in to let her colleagues know she has been approached by a man in a car, who has gestured for her to meet him in an alleyway. We dash to the scene.
The man is shocked by the sudden police presence and Sgt Shepherd takes him to a nearby police sign which states police are cracking down on kerb crawling in the area.
An officer back at base radios in that the man is known to police and has been picked up for previous kerb crawling offences.
That is enough for the police and they call him in for questioning, which could lead to conviction.
Control room receive a call from a resident who says there is a woman hanging around on St Matthews Road, who looks like a sex worker, with a man waiting nearby who might be her pimp. The descriptions match our two plain clothed officers. The resident is thanked and informed of the undercover operation happening tonight.
The undercover officer is approached by two men, who stopped to wave at her. Police cut them off as they leave the area.
The officers let them know she is an undercover officer and the men can't believe it.
As we drive off, Sgt Shepherd tells me it is likely the men will spread the word about the operation.
"This operation is all about being a deterrent and making people question whether they are speaking to a sex worker or a police officer," he says. "The more people that know the more effective it is."
The plain-clothed officer radios in again to say a woman has approached her to ask for condoms. She tells the officer she is meeting a client for sex.
We head out to meet them, joined by a second police car.
Police question the woman, who tells them she is meeting a client at his house for sex. This is not technically against the law, but as she has been seen waiting on the street she is given a warning for soliciting.
The police know the girl. Sgt Shepherd tells the woman he thought she was out of the business.
"You know me," she says. "You know I'm not working on the street. You've got to give me 10 minutes to get to my client's house."
She signs the warning to say she understands that if she receives two more she will be given an official caution.
Back in the van, Sgt Shepherd says the woman has been working since before he became an officer 17 years ago.
As we head off, we spot the woman from earlier in the night who was at St James Close.
We pull over and the woman makes a hasty exit. PC Collins runs to catch up with her and gives her a warning.
As we head back, Sgt Shepherd stops off at a resident's house.
The man says since police began patrols three nights ago he has seen far less kerb crawling, something which fills the police with confidence.