Why this top police officer says red light areas are a good thing

A chief constable has called for licensed brothels, reports Jason Bennetto
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The Independent Online
ONE of Britain's most senior police officers yesterday gave his backing for the establishment of legalised "red light" zones to control and license street prostitutes.

Richard Wells, the Chief Constable of South Yorkshire, also gave his conditional support for the use of licensed brothels as a method of protecting the public and sex workers.

Mr Wells, in an interview with The Independent, is the latest in a number of police chiefs who have proposed a liberalisation of the country's vice laws; but he is the most senior to suggest safe havens for prostitutes working on the streets.

He also blamed the high level of violence in society partly on the bad example set by modern-day role models, citingthe television series Men Behaving Badly.

Mr Wells, who retires in August, had a parting shot, too, for his officers who claimed damages for the trauma they suffered in dealing with the Hillsborough disaster.

Fourteen police officers won pounds 1.2m in 1996 for psychological distress caused by hauling trapped fans out of the Sheffield stadium pens in April 1989. Others are trying to sue for the distress caused from witnessing the incident in which 96 Liverpool football fans died.

"I believe that police officers join the Service and recognise that they are going to face death and trauma, sometimes on a large scale. I think that we all extrapolate from that there are going to be extremely nasty days," he said.

"The Chief Constable should ensure there's good health care in the force, peer group counselling, and a shoulder to cry on. They [the officers] should recuperate and then get back to their job."

On prostitution, he suggested providing street hookers with designated tolerance zones where they would be allowed to act without fear of prosecution. He said: "I think if it was possible to corral it [street prostitution] and license it, then I think it is an answer, but I don't pretend it's a perfect answer or that it's an acceptable answer, but it's something to lessen the mischief. It makes sense."

His comments follow a failed plan to set up a red-light tolerance zone in a commercial district of Sheffield, after complaints from local businesses.

Vice Squad officers have long argued that current laws on prostitutes are unworkable, and in most cities the police are turning a blind eye to sauna and massage joints that act as unofficial brothels. Street prostitution has proved a more difficult issue because it is more visible and generates more complaints.

Mr Wells, who retired in August, said: "There's no easy answer to prostitution. Sex is a commodity which markets itself very easily.

"There is evidence that people are enticed onto the streets to be prostitutes, whether male or female. There's substantial money in it. Where there's money there's likely to be corruption and violence.

"That's all an area of the seediness and danger which commends to me some element of legalisation of brothels. On a balance of the public interest, the balance is shifting towards a form of sanitisation."

He added: "The idea of corralling that short of behaviour into agreed parts of town has something to commend it. The big question is, whose part of town?"

Some police forces are already effectively decriminalising street prostitution. For example, women working in the red light district of Glasgow have been advised by the police to pick up their punters in front of surveillance cameras to deter any would be attackers. The police have promised not to prosecuted the women being filmed.

Keith Hellawell, the Drug Czar, when chief constable of West Yorkshire, first called for the legalisation of brothels.

On the issue of violence in society Mr Wells said: "People in the popular gaze can react with violence and not suffer any penalties - this sends the wrong signal to the public."

He said examples such as famous people "misbehaving on airlines" - the Oasis rock stars Noel and Liam Gallagher were threatened with a ban in February after reports of drunken food fights during a flight to Australia - and television programmes celebrating yob lifestyles such as Men Behaving Badly, all gave the "wrong message".

He argued: "There's been a lack of leadership in very clearly pronounced standards in society."

Since taking charge of the South Yorkshire force eight years ago, Mr Wells has become one of the country's most forward thinking chief constables. He remained worried about "pockets" of prejudice against police officers who were black, gay, women, or handicapped.

"I don't think we have even begun to tackle the homophobic issue yet," he said.