Det Supt Gary Ridgway
A major police operation has been set up in Wisbech to “proactively” investigate possible child sexual exploitation
Det Supt Gary Ridgway, head of the Cambridgeshire Police Protection Unit, said Operation Shade would build on two years of work.
Police had been faced with the choice of either “waiting passively for disclosures to be made to us or proactively going out and looking for disclosures. That is what Operation Shade is all about.”
In a joint operation with Cambridgeshire County Council, police have assembled a specialist team in Wisbech headed by a detective chief inspector, a detective sergeant and four specially selected female officers plus social services and youth workers.
Det Supt Ridgway said he had opted for female officers “because we have learnt that troubled teenagers need a bespoke response. We need officers who see them as victims and not to fall into the trap as seeing them as problem youngsters. Our team will not be distracted by stereotypes and they have the skills to communicate with difficult youngsters”.
He said the force – which has a recent history of successful prosecutions elsewhere in the county- had picked Wisbech “because we know we have systems in place and it is where we have new communities and what we trying to do is get ahead of the game.”
Det Supt Ridgway said: “Wisbech has good partnerships in terms of how we respond to community cohesion and it also has some challenges in respect of new communities where there might be hidden criminality around child sexual exploitation.”
He said its borders with both Norfolk and Lincolnshire “creates both opportunities and challenges”.
The police chief admitted “Wisbech is not unique as a market town but historically it has had issues around trafficking”. Police did not have infinite cash but Operation Shade had been made a priority “and we have committed quite a lot of resources to it. If you go in on a shoestring you run the risk of not getting anywhere”.
His team would particularly be looking for possible exploitation of mainly teenage girls – those predominantly in the 13-15 age bracket- but possible exploitation of young teenage boys was not ruled out.
Society, he said, had come to understand what child sexual exploitation is and one aspect of it could be associated with, for example, where young teenage girls developed relationships with older men.
There were, too, he said issues, for example, surrounding the “lone individual” who might make his house available for young people to visit and relax and maybe experiment with drugs and alcohol and then, later, abuse them.
Operation Shade would focus, too, on gang and group activity and what Det Supt Ridgway described as “the boyfriend model”.
Police had found elsewhere that teenage girls with older boyfriends might be the beginning of exploitation if, for example, the relationship “becomes very controlling. “Then the boyfriends makes cynical efforts to isolate those young people from their family, the support mechanism breaks down before moving to exploitation involving those same young people being coerced or threatened to engage in sexual activity, sometimes with a number of men. We have seen this serious level of criminality elsewhere where young people are then subjected to serious gang rape activity”.
Det Supt Ridgway said: “I hope we don’t find that in Wisbech but we think it is such a serious issue we are prepared to look for it.”
He hoped people would recognise that parents saw Operation Shade “as not resting on our laurels waiting for this to happen but going out to find it. It doesn’t mean people in Wisbech are at a higher risk than anywhere else.”
The police were determined to go into Operation Shade with no preconceptions of which community or what people were possibly involved in child sexual exploitation.
“We don’t want to go down a cul-de-sac of thinking it is about a particular group- we will go where the young people tell us,” he said. “We want to engage with them- and for them to trust us with their experiences.”
One starting point, he said, might be looking for groups of men driving round streets trying to engage with young people. He had looked, too, at case studies from elsewhere where, for example, outside secondary schools three or four men might loiter.
Some might see this as the seeds of low level anti social behaviour “but there might be some sinister element so that is why we are trying to raise awareness”.
He urged people to “open your minds to the possibility of sexual exploitation” which could have life changing impacts on victims.
Parents needed to ensure they talked regularly with their teenage children and look for signs that might suggest possible exploitation. Look for unexplained changes in behaviour, lying about where they have been, experimenting with drugs or alcohol or receiving unexpected gifts.
Perpetrators, too, he said might try and come between the victim and their family- “trying to ensure they are the only source of comfort and care for that young person”.