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April 30, 2007
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The Badge — Prostitution isn't as big as it used to be in the Mission

The relationship between the media and law enforcement is often adversarial. Reporters appear to seek the sensational elements of a crime story, often to the detriment of the police, and officers tend to be uncooperative with journalists they seem to instinctively mistrust.

Not so with "The Badge," a new series presented by a San Francisco Chronicle reporter/photographer team embedded with the SFPD. Kudos to the Chronicle for pursuing this series and to the officers who willingly put themselves in the media spotlight in the hopes of helping civilians develop a better understanding of life behind the badge. You’re putting a human face on "the police," which will benefit us all.

 Read the full "Badge" series

By John Koopman
San Francisco Chronicle

"Police! Open the door!"

There the john was, with his pants around his knees in the backseat of his car, an 18-year-old hooker from Oakland providing a sexual service for him, when he heard the words that no one wants to hear.

It's Officer Wesley Villaruel, and he's shining a flashlight on the sordid little scene at 18th and DeHaro.

"Oh no," the john says, heaving a heavy sigh as he pulls up his pants and opens the door. "No, no, no."

On the other side of the car, a late-model Range Rover, Officer Christina Franco shines her light on a chubby young woman. She's fully dressed in a short-sleeve pull-over top and slacks. Her eyes are wide, she looks scared. "Come on," Franco says gently. "Come on out."

Villaruel and Franco work plainclothes out of the Mission Station. Their primary goal is to sweep the district of streetwalking prostitutes.

Franco and Villaruel work well as a team: Villaruel deals with the johns, and Franco talks to the prostitutes.

They separate the hooker and her client, and each questions the respective suspect. The woman tells Franco she and the man are dating. But the john is afraid, and under Villaruel's persistent questioning, he explains everything. He paid the woman $40 for oral sex. He's done this before but never been arrested.

Prostitute and customer are both taken to the station for booking.

Prostitution isn't as big as it used to be in the Mission. Hordes of young women used to ply their trade, mostly around 16th and Capp streets. But many have gone underground, selling themselves over the Internet. Others work the seedier strip clubs and massage parlors.

Franco and Villaruel have been partners for about six months. Villaruel is 29 and new to plainclothes. Franco is 37 and has been working this job for about three years. They look and act a little like brother and sister. They spend every workday together, so much so that when one gets the flu, they both get the flu.

They wear sweats and jeans. Villaruel fancies Giants ball caps and jerseys. Franco says she's just about 5 feet tall, but that's an optimistic assessment. She's a very small woman, but tough. She's a former Marine, and drove a truck in the first Gulf War.

They go out in an unmarked car, different colors different nights. The regular prostitutes know the cars and what they look like. But it's dark, and the two cops play cat and mouse with their prey. It's not unlike a hunting expedition. They drive around "the track," the area in the middle of the Mission District where prostitutes typically roam.

They'll park on a dark street and get out the binoculars, looking for streetwalkers and eyeing passing vehicles to figure out who's looking for some action.

Sometimes, Franco and Villaruel work a decoy operation, in which one will act as either prostitute or john, but more often they're just out to get the hookers off the streets. If a prostitute doesn't get into a car for some time, but has been continually chatting up passers-by, they'll pick her up for "loitering for the purposes of prostitution." It's not much of a bust, but it gets the women off the street for the evening.

For Franco and Villaruel, keeping prostitution off the street is about quality of life for the people who live in the neighborhood. Prostitutes and their customers are often armed and sometimes commit other crimes. And people who live in the Mission don't like finding sex acts going on in driveways, or having kids find used condoms in the bushes.

But they also worry about the men and women who buy and sell sex.

"These guys don't always realize what the girl has," Franco says. "A lot of them have hepatitis, herpes or even HIV. They get a (sex act) with no condom, get some disease and take it home to their wives. It's bad all around."

Disease isn't the only danger. After one bust, Villaruel comes up with a wicked-looking switchblade he took off a hooker.

"These girls will bring a weapon for self-defense," he said. "Just about all of them have something."

The women are at risk, too. Franco has seen dead hookers before, killed by homicidal johns.

On another night, Villaruel and Franco spot a young woman with a tight top and miniskirt under a denim jacket —  pretty much the uniform for Mission District streetwalkers — walking along South Van Ness. She gets into a car, and the officers start up the unmarked car.

They follow their prey to a gas station, but the driver doesn't get out. There appears to be some conversation going on. Moments later, the car moves again, back to the spot where the woman was picked up. She gets out of the car.

"Let's go get her," Franco says.

The cops get out and walk up to the woman, badges showing. It's a quiet, easy stop. The woman says she didn't do anything with the john. She said the man wanted something and wouldn't let her out of the car.

Franco bristles.

She wants to get back in the unmarked car and chase down the john. You don't hook on Franco's streets. More important, you don't harm or threaten anyone. But the woman says there was a misunderstanding. The man didn't threaten her, she says, just asked for a sexual act that she did not want to provide. She doesn't elaborate.

"You know you shouldn't be out here, right?" Franco tells her. "It's dangerous. You never know what these guys will do. It's dangerous, and you know it's illegal.

"That's why you don't see many others out here," Franco says with a bit of an edge. "We arrest them."

Read the Badge Blog

Copyright 2007 San Francisco Chronicle

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