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Complaints spur crackdown on hookers

CRIME WATCH | Barbara Kate Repa

Battling what appears to be an upsurge in prostitution, officers at Northern Station have stepped up enforcement efforts in recent months, making a growing number of arrests on Van Ness Avenue.

In April, 88 people were arrested or cited on charges related to prostitution in the district — up from the usual monthly tally of 10 to 20, according to Captain Ann Mannix of Northern Station on Fillmore Street. Charges included prostitution, soliciting prostitution and related offenses such as warrant arrests and traffic violations.

The crackdown came in response to renewed complaints by area residents that the community risks being overtaken by problems related to sex for sale.

Among them is Dawn Trennert, who founded the Middle Polk Neighborhood Association five years ago after eight pimp shootings in a short time. She rallied other neighbors in the area between California Street and Broadway to stage a night watch from 1 to 5 a.m. to gather empirical evidence.

They got an eyeful.

“We saw a pimp pull into the middle of the street at Sacramento and Larkin at 3 in the morning,” says Trennert. “He drove in a circle, screaming at a woman who had just come onto her shift: ‘You’re wearing too many clothes, you crack whore bitch! This is San Francisco and you have to be naked to make money.’ ”

Captain Mannix says she and other law enforcement officers met about a year ago with residents to discuss the issue. In response, police undertook a one-month program to clamp down on prostitution in the neighborhood, largely led by plainclothes officers posing as johns or prostitutes. During the first two weeks of 2010, more than three dozen suspected prostitutes and 15 would-be customers were arrested.

Mannix says community complaints boiled up again this February — and again, Northern officers responded with a stepped-up abatement effort.

One of the highest concentrations of prostitution in the city is in an area near the neighborhood identified by police as “the track,” bounded by Van Ness, Larkin, Clay and Ellis.

“The basic principle of supply and demand is heavy in that area,” says Mannix. It is a logistically opportune spot, she says, since drivers have easy access, many businesses in the area stay open late and there are inexpensive hotels and motels nearby.

Some local residents were surprised by both the big uptick in the number charged and the area being targeted, believing the Tenderloin neighborhood to be more of a hotbed for prostitution. But investigators say the two areas attract distinctly different crowds — the Tenderloin trending to local transvestite prostitutes who generally work alone, and the Van Ness strip drawing more out-of-town straight prostitutes working for violence-prone pimps.

“Prostitution is very competitive,” Mannix says. “It begins at about 1 in the morning and continues until nearly dawn.” During intensified prostitution crackdowns, records show as many as six or seven arrests in a targeted zone between midnight and 6 a.m.

Most of those arrested for prostitution during the recent sweep are women and most are from the East Bay, although some have been from Orange County and as far away as Las Vegas and Washington state; only a few are San Francisco residents.

Mannix says that prostitution seems to “go hand in hand” with a number of other crimes including drug sales, robberies, assaults and shootings. She also cited a pimp-on-pimp shooting at Bob’s Donuts on Polk between Sacramento and Clay Streets in February.

There are also some more pragmatic concerns. “It’s just not healthy for a neighborhood to have to go out and sweep up condoms every morning before the kids see them,” says Trennert, of the Middle Polk association. “They say prostitution is a victimless crime, but it’s anything but victimless. The neighborhoods are the serious victims here — serious victims.”

Despite the crackdown, some residents say police efforts to stop prostitution are sporadic and mostly ineffectual. Mannix says it’s a matter of priorities.

“We could do 88 every month,” she says. “But in the scale of crime on Friday and Saturday nights, we have lots of other things to respond to — and they often must take precedence.”

According to California law, anyone found guilty of prostitution or soliciting prostitution may be jailed up to six months, fined $1,000, or both. Both prostitutes and their customers, often called johns, can face the same sentence. Repeat offenders face stiffer penalties, including up to six years of jail time. Another possible charge, “agreeing to engage in prostitution,” illegal since 1986, makes it more difficult for all engaged in prostitution to claim they were entrapped or ensnared; that charge, however, does not lead to an increased sentence for repeat offenders.

Because of a lack of specific evidence and other legal complexities, many prostitution-related charges are reduced to lesser offenses such as disturbing the peace, trespassing or committing lewd conduct; all carry more lenient punishment and less personal stigma for those convicted.

State laws also specify that the necessary finding of the intent to engage in prostitution may be inferred from actions, such as beckoning to or stopping and talking with passersby or beckoning to drivers — especially in areas known for prostitution activity. Once investigating officers stop a suspected prostitute, evidence such as possessing a number of condoms, a large amount of cash or cellphone records tracking customers may also be considered as strengthening the charge.

“To get a john is more labor-intensive and time-intensive,” says Mannix.

Says Sgt. Michael Andraychak, an officer who has worked such arrests: “When there are female undercover decoy officers working the streets, they want the john to approach them and start talking, to make some offer or agreement that there will be sex for money.”

Without evidence of the conversation, it can be challenging to prove that a john solicited an illegal act. For charges of prostitution, it can be hard to prove another required element: that money or something else of value such as drugs changed hands. And if investigating officers conclude that a person will not likely reoffend — as is often the case with johns — they are cited and released.

The most serious offenses — pimping and pandering — are felonies punishable by three to six years in prison. “We really like to arrest pimps because they’re the most violence-prone,” Mannix says.

But that presents the biggest challenge of all: tracking individuals who often have enough street smarts to stay off the street, then linking them to the specific acts charged. To make the charges stick, a prostitute usually must be willing to testify against a pimp, which is rare.

In spotting those who may be soliciting prostitution, officers look most obviously at those wearing clothing that seems jarring or out of place, especially in the city’s generally cool climes.

“You just can’t believe it,” says Mannix. “Sometimes they wear almost nothing at all.”

Officers stop scantily clad women who seem to be loitering, often on corners, along curbs or at bus stops, and ask to see their identification. Computer checks often show a prior charge such as “loitering” or “commercialized sex.” Most of these are deemed warrant arrests, where a suspect has already been arrested on the charge but did not show up as required for an arraignment. Those suspects are required to return to the jurisdiction where the warrant is pending.

But mode of dress and demeanor aren’t always dependable indicators. One neighborhood regular, age 88, says he was propositioned while waiting for a bus at the corner of Van Ness and Union.

“A woman approached and asked what time the bus was coming,” he says. “Then she asked a more personal question — whether I was going to lunch — and asked whether she could come along.” That was followed by a more overt suggestion involving sex.

“I would have never, ever in a hundred years picked her as a hooker,” he says. “She was dressed conservatively. Looked like she was 35 or 40 years old — an ordinary, attractive lady.”

But no deal: “I told her I’m gay.”

Mannix says that while prostitution in the track area is no longer being pursued as vigorously as during the April crackdown, there is still a persistent police presence in the area. “We continue steady enforcement,” she says. “Now we’re doing heavy traffic enforcement — motorcycle cops pulling people over who are impeding the flow of traffic.”

But Trennert says this leaves her and other neighbors concerned.

“As soon as the patrols are done and the heat is off, they’re back,” she says. “We want to see arrests really matter. Currently a prostitute is arrested and barely even taken out of a business cycle. We need to interrupt their business cycles in a more serious way — and make johns realize they’re taking risks, not only with their own health, but with the safety of the whole neighborhood.”