Scott G. Winterton, Deseret Morning News
A prostitution suspect and an Ogden detective exchange money during a prostitution sting. It may be that the prostitution suspect is returning the money after she is told this is a sting. Photo by Scott G. Winterton. February 24, 2003.

The Salt Lake City Police Department's new approach to fighting prostitution and vice is the kind of strategic initiative that can actually make a serious dent in a problem that previous enforcement efforts have only been able to keep in check, at best.

Police Chief Chris Burbank has created a new Organized Crime Unit to replace the department's old Vice Squad in a move that is more than organizational. The change represents an adjustment of tactical priorities, moving away from focusing on arresting practitioners as they ply their trade, and looking more deeply at the roots of vice operations.

It is refreshing to see a law enforcement leader of Burbank's stature avow the importance of enforcing prostitution and gambling laws. Police agencies have traditionally viewed vice-related crime as a problem that might be contained and kept largely out of sight, but which is too entrenched to be eradicated.

But truthfully, they are crimes that deserve higher law enforcement prioritization. The sex and gambling trades can destroy lives, families and livelihoods. Prostitution is not a victimless crime. In many cases, it is an outgrowth of human trafficking operations, and when thus organized is far more pernicious than crimes that carry harsher penalties and receive greater law enforcement focus.

Burbank clearly understands that reality, telling The Deseret News, "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 benefiting from it."

In the past, police have courted controversy by using undercover officers to pose as prostitutes or potential clients. The operations may result in arrests, but they have also resulted in claims of entrapment and civil rights violations. And in the end, they are misdemeanor arrests, and the violators are soon back about their business.

By trying to disrupt organized operations at their highest echelons, officers stand a chance of rescuing those who are forced into prostitution as a result of addictions or other pressures. Burbank's strategy includes an eye toward proffering treatment instead of jail for those in such circumstances – an idea that is as smart as it is compassionate.

What's also smart is Burbank's nomenclature. Changing the name of the unit in charge of such investigations sends a clear message to the perpetrators as well as the public. The term "vice" has long held a connotation of minor crime. But the term "organized crime" carries loads more heft, and in this day and age it hardly overstates the nature of the problem.

Salt Lake police also wish to enlist partners such as the FBI and the Internal Revenue Service in the campaign against the organizers of vice operations. Instead of just following prostitutes, investigators will follow the money, and that trail may lead them to a place where they can make a much bigger dent in the overall enterprise.

Expanding the partnership to other local police agencies is also worth considering — in a manner similar to the way departments in different regions have created joint operations to fight drug trafficking.

The initiative is bold, innovative and promising. The department deserves credit for designing an attack with a scope and focus entirely appropriate to the nature of the problem it targets.