‘We think outside the box’: How England's most successful exploitation squad tackles sex trafficking
By Michael Holmes
A top cop tasked with tackling modern slavery across Lancashire put his reputation on the line to change the way crime gangs are targeted - and was successful.
Det Sgt Stu Peall, from the county’s exploitation and human trafficking squad, said the reluctance of terrified victims to cooperate with police left him - and justice - frustrated.
Following talks with lawyers, he decided to change tactics, with Lancashire Police now having the best modern slavery charge rate out of any force in the country at almost 30 per cent.
An investigation by JPIMedia has revealed that fewer than one in 20 cases (4.4%) investigated by police in England and Wales since the 2015 Modern Slavery Act has seen a suspect charged.
“We were going to these brothels and looking into the eyes of these girls and we knew what they were telling us - that everything is fine - wasn’t true,” Det Sgt Peall said.
“You know in your heart and your head when something isn’t right.
“I can speak from firsthand experience, you walked away from jobs in the early days and you felt quite guilty. But your hands were tied.”
Det Sgt Peall, who used to work in counter-terrorism, said his force had found success by pursuing sexual offence charges such as controlling prostitution alongside trafficking charges, to strengthen cases without a cooperating victim.
He said: “That worked and it’s worked around the country. It’s something we are really proud of.
“It was born out of pure frustration at not being able to do my job as I felt we should be doing.”
He continued: “I was probably putting my reputation on the line.
“You are not always going to get a trafficking conviction, but if you can get a conviction of eastern European men for controlling prostitution. That’s better than nothing.
“You’re saving people, you’re going to get them a sentence that will get them deported, and you’re protecting the women.”
However, a spokesperson for the Independent Anti-Slavery Commissioner said charges under the Modern Slavery Act are preferable, because the Act contains a number of orders that can prevent exploitation in the future.
This includes Slavery and Trafficking Risk Orders to protect victims prior to prosecution, and Slavery and Trafficking Prevention Orders, to help manage convicted criminals after their sentence.
Det Sgt Peall said the “dream” scenario remains for police to receive a complaint from a trafficking victim, but said the protection offered by authorities to eastern European women “is nothing near what the offenders can offer them in threat”.
“All they want to do is go home,” he said. “And that’s basically just sending them back to the problem of how they got here in the first place.
“Every woman I’ve met is poor, they’re from Romany backgrounds, and they have children. It’s a sad tale.”
Anti-slavery Commissioner Dame Sara Thornton says modern slavery prosecutions should be “victim-focused but not victim-reliant”, and use a spectrum of evidence to reduce reliance on victim testimony.
And Det Sgt Peall, who said nine in 10 investigations are sparked by tip-offs from the public, said other forces should simplify their probes.
He said: “People get in their head that to prove the offence we have got to prove that Mr Stan has moved a girl from Romania to England.
“But that isn’t what you need to do. It’s much more simple.
“What you have to do is prove that Stan has moved a girl from A to B.
“So if the girl is working in a brothel in Blackburn and she gets a phone call from a user who says, ‘I want you to come to my house to provide a service in Preston’, if you can prove that Stan controlled that movement or moved the girl, that’s enough.
“Sometimes, people try and overcomplicate things and think, ‘I can’t prove that’, but you can, you just have to think outside the box a little bit more and use the law to your benefit.”
Det Sgt Peall acknowledged that more could still be done in Lancashire - but said officers have to choose which crimes they prioritise.
He said: “We are really proud of the success rate but could we do more? Of course we can. Everybody can.
“Do I think there’s enough work in east Lancashire for us to do sex trafficking all the time? Yeah, there probably is, but do we do it all the time? No, because it depends on what risk and threat there is.
“If there’s kids dealing drugs, that threat is sometimes going to be higher than women being sex trafficked.
“But they are all terrible.”
While it is illegal to pay for sex with a trafficking victim, it’s a tough case to prove, Det Sgt Peall said.
He added: “It’s one thing targeting the people who we should be targeting the most, and that’s the gangs bringing these girls in, but the reason they’re brought in is the demand.”
While he said men have nothing to fear if they tip off police if they suspect a woman is a trafficking victim, officers recently contacted numerous punters whose numbers were found on seized mobile phones.
He said: “We took all the data of blokes that had contacted the girls and we sent them all a text message from Lancashire Police.
“I had to be really careful legally, so we just sent a text message at Christmas saying, ‘A lot of women around this time are being trafficked. If you have any concerns or know anything please contact 101 or reply to this text message’.
“I’m sure you can guess how many we got back. I just wanted to tell them, ‘You know now that we know’.
“Even if we got rid of 20, that to me is some kind of success. It’s what I try and do on a daily basis. I try and think outside the box.
“Sometimes you’ve got to be a bit brighter than the next man.”
- The Modern Slavery Helpline can be called on 08000 121 700.