November/December 1996
Tactical Programs

High-Profile Program Successfully Drives Prostitutes Out of Town (Long Version)

Community Police Officers Tim Brockman and Karen Demick arrest a "john."


Some communities seized the cars of "johns" arrested for prostitution. Other cities like Washington, D.C. jacked up fines for soliciting to $1,000. West Palm Beach, Fla., opted for public embarrassment, publicizing the name of johns on billboards and in newspapers, then

forced them to attend group counseling sessions with prostitutes. Other police departments made periodic sweeps to clean things up for awhile--especially during elections--then looked the other way. And San Francisco flirted with legalizing the oldest profession.

Although the approaches vary widely, it's evident cities nationwide are taking a tougher stand against prostitution. And for the first time, they're coming down hard on the demand side. But perhaps nowhere is this war against prostitution being waged more innovatively than in St. Petersburg, Fla.

The cops there are taking it to the streets to drive out prostitution with a new high-profile program--one of the most comprehensive in the nation. It's driven not from the top, or by city hall, but by the community police officers on the beat. Working in concert with residents and business owners, they have become an integral part of the department's highly successful community policing philosophy.

In fact, the enforcement effort was formulated at the street level by a lieutenant and seven officers. And, it went all the way to city hall and back to the streets, basically unchanged.

Some critics claim that you can't win the war against prostitution--you only drive it across the city line or transform it into a different shape--but St. Petersburg officers strongly disagree. "That's like saying cops can't stamp out crime, so we should give up," said Lt. Debbie Prine, one of the key architects of the St. Petersburg anti-prostitution program. "There's always going to be bad guys. What we're trying to do is take back the streets, improve the quality of life and make a difference in controlling prostitution, the crime that follows it, and the enormous health hazard it poses to society. Nobody said it was going to be easy," explained Prine, who now heads what they call the prostitution core group. She also added, "In St. Petersburg, all of our CPO's (community police officers) make arrests and are actively involved in various investigations. We're not social workers as some officers from other agencies like to portray community police officers. Our job is to help our neighborhoods solve problems and from all the feedback I've received, that's being accomplished."

Cashing In On Sleaze

"We have a zero tolerance approach to prostitution in St. Petersburg," said Community Policing Officer Frank Sauer, who helped develop the program and organized the first prostitution sting operation. "And we believe we have a program that works and benefits the entire city by

attacking a climate and criminal environment that enables drugs, robbery, child abuse, theft, sex offenses--you name it--to flourish."

Not surprisingly, the program has sparked controversy. For instance, St. Petersburg achieved a first when it premiered "John TV," a cable television program that broadcast the names of johns and prostitutes. The program caused a furor and generated widespread publicity on radio, television and newspapers. But it also brought accolades and public support. NBC Nightly News featured St. Petersburg on its "American Closeup" segment highlighting communities that are trying new ways to halt prostitution. The British Broadcasting Corporation dispatched a television crew from New York to "see how the Americans do it," officials said.

A Community Policing Approach

The anti-prostitution program could not have evolved without St. Petersburg's commitment to community policing, a philosophy that has been vigorously promoted by Police Chief Darrel Stephens. St. Petersburg was one of the first cities in the nation to go citywide with community policing. The department first identified 48 neighborhoods in the city. Then it assigned community police officers to these areas, along with backup from three to four beat officers. This prostitution abatement program required the kind of leadership which recognized that good ideas often evolve from the rank and file.

"We really do believe that our success depends on having a real partnership, where cops work with the people in the community and take a problem-solving approach" Stephens said. "Our conviction is that police do their job better if they empower citizens and work with residents, not against them. This is a perfect example of how officers can focus on preventing crime instead of just arresting criminals.

Doing Their Homework

Prine and her squad members conducted several months of research, which included contacting officers in various police departments to find out what worked and what didn't work. The squad looked at the Florida State Statutes they were going to enforce. Then they borrowed and adapted the best ideas they could find, and incorporated them into a plan with input from residents and business owners.

"What we found was that other communities were attacking either the supply or the demand side," Sauer said. "But none of them seemed to be taking a comprehensive approach aimed at the prostitutes, the johns--or what's even more important--the environment that sustains this activity.

That means you have to reach the motels that cater to this, the businesses, and the homeowner who have a responsibility too, and allow this to exist." "We knew we needed a multi-faceted approach," Prine added. "We're not going to just arrest a lot of prostitutes in the morning and put them in the revolving-door justice system so they can be back on the street again at lunch time. Because doing just one thing wouldn't work. For example, some people don't care if you put their name on television as a convicted john. Maybe they don't live in the area or they just couldn't care less.

But they don't want to lose their driver's license. So that would be a way to eliminate that particular group. We reviewed the entire problem, and one by one, discovered ways to deal with each part. That was the key," said Prine.

Spreading the Word

How does the program work? First of all, the department made it clear that prostitution is not a moral or ethical issue in St. Petersburg. The police department conducted an intensive public information program to make it known that prostitution, or soliciting a prostitute, is a crime.

That message has been repeatedly broadcast through the media by Bill Doniel, the police agency's Division Manager of Community Awareness. It's also been emphasized by Doniel in the department's own "Police Report," which appears weekly on the City's new low power television station (Channel 35), including cable television, reaching a potential audience of 100,000 homes.

"We tell people straight out that if you solicit a prostitute in St. Petersburg, you can expect to be arrested, fingerprinted and booked just like any other criminal." Doniel said. "Your sentence can include time in jail, probation, a fine and the revocation of your driver's license." In addition, he said the names of all individuals convicted of prostitution or soliciting for prostitution appear on the television program. The listing also includes their addresses and birth dates, as well as their fines and sentences. "Dear John" letters are another deterrent developed by the St. Petersburg Police Department. Every person convicted of soliciting a prostitute receives a letter from the Chief of Police, stamped CONFIDENTIAL and is mailed to the perpetrators home address. The letter reminds the individual or "family members" that the act of patronizing a prostitute is a criminal offense and that there are dangers involved (such as becoming a victim of a serious crime or being exposed to numerous venereal diseases and AIDS).

The department also sends an alternate warning letter to johns whenever an officer does not have adequate evidence to make an arrest. In these situations, the officer has observed an individual consorting with a prostitute and has no doubt about the situation or the intent.

Mapping Out a Strategy

With the support of the chief judge in Pinellas County, the police department has introduced a "mapping" strategy, in which a prostitute is denied access to the area where she previously worked. It works like this: The arresting officer attaches a map to the arrest papers with the street where she was picked up clearly marked. When a prostitute is convicted, the judge orders her to stay out of this defined area as a condition of probation. If an officer stops a prostitute for loitering and discovers she is in her mapped area, this is noted in a field interrogation report and forwarded to the probation board. The prostitute can be sent to jail for violating her probation. The St. Petersburg Police have found that mapping along with a seldom-used statute that provides for revocation of a convicted person's driver's license, has been an effective way to keep johns and prostitutes out of their neighborhoods--especially since most johns drive in from other parts of St. Petersburg and other cities.

Community Police Officer Rodney Tower processes a female arrested for prostitution solicitation.

Winning Public Support

An integral part of the prostitution program is to gain public support and encourage citizen involvement. That's why officers are actively participating in crime watch groups and neighborhood associations. The public outreach program is wide-ranging, encompassing a speaker's bureau, an intensive media relations program and the dissemination of public information materials. It also involves correspondence to important constituencies, such as city council, the courts, businesses, neighborhood leaders, motel operators, schools, religious groups, and non-profit and service organizations.

Community Police Officer Joanne Hawes, who has served as a decoy in prostitution undercover operations, was instrumental in pushing drug dealers and prostitution out of a high-crime area in St. Petersburg known as Childs Park. When she was assigned there as a CPO, the neighborhood association was virtually non-existent. Hawes literally went door-to-door contacting key members of the community to promote crime watch and the association.

She met with motel and small business owners to establish rules and set up a system to monitor drugs and hustling. She began distributing information sheets with the pictures of known prostitutes. And she disseminated these to motel owners with the understanding that they would not rent rooms to prostitutes or their associates. She walked the streets with Turn In A Prostitute flyers that promoted the Prostitution Hot Line--any anonymous tip line people could call to report prostitution.

The Other Side of The Coin

Perhaps the most devastating aspect of prostitution is what the life does to women on the street, an aspect that St. Petersburg officers openly discusses when describing their enforcement efforts. "We bust prostitutes over and over, and they're just back on the street again," Hawes said. A recently released Department survey indicates that nearly 2/3's of prostitutes report prior arrests. 75 percent of prostitutes surveyed were under 30 years of age and nearly 1/3 were under 21. Officers know from their experience and prostitute surveys that virtually every streetwalker is a drug user--cocaine is usually the drug of choice. "You'll never meet anyone with worse self-esteem than an addict street prostitute," Lt. Prine said. "These are pitiful individuals with terrible problems. Almost all of them are on drugs. They have no jobs, no education. They're dealing with guilt. Many have been sexually abused as children and come from dysfunctional families. In fact, our recent survey showed 50% of the prostitutes surveyed reported being abused as a child. Many are infected with sexually transmitted diseases and nearly 2/3's have children of their own to support."

"There's nothing out there for them right now," Hawes said, adding that the cops would like to start a residential treatment center for prostitutes modeled after the Mary Magdalene Project. This halfway house in Southern California provides women with emotional and educational resources to help them get out of prostitution and into decent jobs. Unlike the Magdalene Project, Hawes says the St. Petersburg home would accept only girls with drug problems. And, it would be the first residential treatment center in the nation started by cops for prostitutes. The St. Petersburg Police Department was one of five agencies in the nation last year to be selected by the U. S. Bureau of Justice Assistance for a $200,000 annual grant to support community policing. The grant will provide funding for the initial stage of the prostitution treatment project; the balance will come from fines imposed on the johns and support from a participating non-profit organization. Hawes has already lined up two former prostitutes who have agreed to work with her as role models and show prostitutes that it is possible to start fresh again.

Tracking Results

As far as measuring its results to date, the anti-prostitution team is now developing statistical measures to assess the impact of the program. In 1996, a new computer data base called ProstCore will be in place to track all the numbers and information relating to prostitution in St. Petersburg. "We expect to have one of the best data bases in the nation specifically on prostitution," Prine said. "The report will list calls, arrests, the names of prostitutes, their pimps, their associates and related drug dealers," Prine said. "This will give us a really superb analytical tool to chart out progress. The data has always been out there scattered, but for the first time we'll pull it all together."

"The preliminary system has already paid dividends for officers investigating other crimes. The prostitution core group now gets regular visits from the homicide and robbery units to gather leads and intelligence on their cases. We regularly get requests from other departments to visit St. Petersburg and go along on a decoy operation," Sauer said.

Recently Sergeant Butch Barfield and Officer Tony Youngblood from North Charleston (S.C.) spent two days with Lieutenant Prine observing tactics and procedures. Barfield said, "It's always helpful to see another agency's operation first hand. We observed a lot of good techniques and investigative procedures that can be implemented in our community policing efforts back in South Carolina."

Meanwhile in St. Petersburg, the cops on the street don't have any illusions. It's not called the worlds oldest profession because it won't be around much longer. But they think they're making a difference, especially since they have had only one john to be arrested more then once.

"One of our female community police officers was on the street as adecoy, and these women with children in the car would roll down the window and hurl abuse at her," Sauer said. "They would be yelling for that hooker to get off their street. We had to call the people and tell them it was an undercover operation. Then, later that day, we made an arrest and picked up a john. "You should have seen it. They came out of their houses and cheered us," he said. "That's community policing."

By Ronald J. Getz

For more information, contact William G. Doniel, Division Manager of Public Information, St. Petersburg Police Department, 1300 First Ave. N., St. Petersburg, FL 33705-1588. Phone: (813) 893-7547.