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London Police Sgt. Lorna Bruce. (J.P. MOCZULSKI)
London Police Sgt. Lorna Bruce. (J.P. MOCZULSKI)

London sergeant reaches out to prostitutes to keep them safe Add to ...

For all the new revelations about the Robert Pickton case - including the 1997 attempted murder charge that, had it been prosecuted, might have spared his subsequent victims - the same basic questions remain.

How did so many women go missing without anyone connecting the dots? And how can we make sure nothing remotely like it ever happens again?

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There may be no satisfactory answers to the first question. But in London, Ont., some 3,000 kilometres from where Mr. Pickton's victims were swept up, they've got a pretty good answer to the second.

For the past five years, Sergeant Lorna Bruce has worked a most unusual beat. Her job, under what's officially known as the London police force's Persons at Risk program, is to reach out to prostitutes.

The idea is that by building individual files on each of the women working the streets - files that go well beyond arrest records - Sgt. Bruce can ensure any disappearances are quickly noticed. But truth be told, she does a lot more than just track the women. She builds a relationship of trust that gives new meaning to "community policing."

Riding with Sgt. Bruce through London's troubled east side is in many ways depressing. She's identified about 230 street prostitutes, every last one of them fuelling a debilitating drug addiction. These women are in rough shape, covered in track marks and scars and, in some cases, fresh wounds. Almost all have hepatitis; a significant number are HIV-positive. And even on a weekday morning, once you start looking, they're everywhere.

But there's something unexpectedly heartening about the experience, too, if only because of how Sgt. Bruce interacts with the women.

These are not people conditioned to welcome police with open arms.

Most have been arrested at some point, and part of their job is to stay out of the watchful eye of the law. But when she pulls up alongside them, she's greeted like an old friend.

That trust has been hard won. Sgt. Bruce spends her days chatting with the women, buying them coffee, driving them to parole hearings, and connecting them with social services. (The women are asked to sign a waiver that allows Sgt. Bruce to speak on their behalf to lawyers, the Crown and various agencies; some also provide next-of-kin information to be contacted if something happens to them and give a voluntary DNA sample.)

She tries to nudge them toward drug treatment, and counts 17 that have kicked their habits and gotten off the street. But while still very much police - she makes no apologies for arrests by other officers, saying it's often the best wake-up call - Sgt. Bruce is pragmatic.

"You weren't ready," she says to the 33-year-old in her back seat, crashing from crystal meth, who's beating herself up for failing to capitalize on an open spot in rehab. Sgt. Bruce reassures her that the right time will come, then buys her a Big Mac that seems to be her first meal in days.

Another young woman, in somewhat better shape, gets dropped off at home. The fact that she's going there to meet a client is overlooked; the good news is she's got a roof over her head.

Sgt. Bruce concedes some of her colleagues initially wondered if she was a glorified social worker. But the benefits of what she does have become obvious. It's now easier to keep the city's most vulnerable people safe, in part by getting a sense of who poses the most danger to them. Along with the women's photos, her office has mug shots of some of London's most violent johns. It also doesn't hurt, when the force is investigating other crimes, to have established contacts in the roughest neighbourhoods.

Whether the same strategy would work everywhere is debatable. London's population is under 400,000, which makes it less anonymous than bigger cities. And not every city necessarily has an officer ideally suited to the role.

But if most other forces aren't closely studying what London is doing, they should be. Because the odds are someone like Robert Pickton wouldn't last a month here.

Follow on Twitter: @aradwanski

 

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