SALT LAKE CITY — Saying that passing out citations isn't the way to solve the prostitution problem, Salt Lake City Police Chief Chris Burbank has announced a new initiative to tackle the issue.
"We spend a lot of time handing out class B misdemeanor tickets and never solving the problem," Burbank said. "Our commitment is not just to write a bunch of $50 tickets for prostitution. We are actually looking at what is the underlying cause, who's responsible for this activity and who's benefiting from it. And we are going to go after them with partners like the FBI and IRS."
The department's new Organized Crime Unit replaces the old Salt Lake City Vice Squad, which was disbanded last year. The eight-member team's duties include policing underage alcohol sales, prostitution and gambling, just as the vice squad did before.
But the biggest change, Burbank said, will be in the way his officers handle prostitution cases.
"My big concern is, and what we've decided to really focus our efforts on, is what is the underlying cause of anyone, male or female, engaging in prostitution," he said.
Prostitution has been happening since the beginning of time. But it's the women and underage girls and boys who are being forced into prostitution or sex trafficking that Burbank wants his team to focus much of their efforts.
"Where another individual or entity is benefiting, receiving funds for that person's illegally activity, that is an organized crime and that is something that needs to be taken care of. In fact, in my mind it constitutes a trafficking violation," he said. "What I really want to impact and identify are those people being put in that position against their will."
In some cases, Burbank said prostitutes are lured into the business because of a drug or alcohol addiction and then become trapped and forced to continue being a prostitute against their will. He said it is difficult to see undercover officers pose online as 14- and 15-year-old boys and girls and receive hundreds of sexual solicitations.
"So what that tells me is there are people of that age engaged in that activity, obviously against their will."
Once those who are trapped in prostitution are identified, they can receive the right treatment. And investigators can follow the money trail, the chief said. He stressed, however, that the new approach does not mean officers are turning a blind eye to prostitution and will arrest prostitutes when necessary.
Burbank said the change was also made because of some past problems with his vice squad and to try and prevent any possible problems in the future. He said officers should not be doing undercover work to the extent that it involves physical contact between prostitutes and officers.
"It is ridiculous to think that I'm going to send a police officer out and in essence engage in the criminal act that we're going to arrest somebody for moments later," he said. "We will accomplish more in uniform that in an undercover capacity."
The Organized Crime Unit will focus on more than prostitutes. Burbank said illegal gambling, while not rampant in the city, will also be addressed.
"We have encountered in the past and will in the future, very large gambling operations," Burbank said.
Specifically, he said there have been large poker games occurring in the city. Such games are not the type where friends get together on a Friday night, he said, but the type that involve 50 to 60 people with large amounts of money at stake.