LAPD changes its game to combat sex trade
Officers are targeting johns and pimps more often and with harsher penalties
By Kelly Goff
LOS ANGELES — A white Ford F-150 cruises into the parking lot of a nondescript strip mall across from the train tracks on San Fernando Road in Pacoima. The driver, a heavyset guy — built like a linebacker, clad in a Michael Vick jersey and jeans — lumbers out and then pauses.
A brunette in tight jeans and high heels standing on the corner has caught his eye. He takes a good long moment to look her up and down, then ducks into the convenience store.
After his purchase, he backs up his truck and pulls up alongside the woman. The two chat, a deal is struck, and he heads out of the parking lot to meet her on a dimly lit side street.
It's a scene that happens all-too-often in certain parts of Los Angeles, police and community members say. A handful of main drags in the city are plagued by prostitutes walking the streets at all hours, and men cruising for them with little regard for the legality or impact on the community.
On this particular night in March, the script takes a different twist.
From seemingly out of nowhere sirens scream and lights flash as two uniformed police officers on motorcycles roll up behind the man's truck.
The woman is an undercover cop, part of a periodic police task force designed to send a message to the streets. With a furtive gesture, the brunette in tight jeans had signaled other officers that the man had solicited her for prostitution.
But being arrested may not have been the worst thing to happen to him this evening. As officers order the man out of his truck and pat him down, an older woman charges down the street toward the scene yelling, followed by a second, younger woman and a little boy and girl.
"Why are you taking my daddy?" the little boy cries, as the women — apparently his mother and wife — yell at the officers, not yet realizing why the man is being hauled off in cuffs.
He'd allegedly tried to pay for sex on the same block as his own family home.
That hardly fazes Sgt. Scott Murray, who oversees the vice division at the Los Angeles Police Department's Foothill Division. He's seen plenty of brazen solicitations: would-be johns with their babies strapped into child seats in the back of the car. City and county employees in their taxpayer-owned vehicles.
"These guys are so focused, they don't see anything around them," Murray said as the two women on San Fernando Road continued screaming.
And the story, once caught, is almost always the same: "I didn't know she was a prostitute."
New Approach To An Old Problem
That's one of the oldest excuses for the world's oldest profession. And in some parts of the city, it's being heard a lot more often these days.
Los Angeles police and prosecutors are cracking down on prostitution. But this time they have a new mindset. They are targeting johns and pimps more often and with harsher penalties, but aiming to treat the women as victims of sex trafficking who need counseling and a way off the streets more than a night in jail.
"No one chooses to be a prostitute. No little girl wakes up and says 'This is what I want to do with my life'," Deputy Chief Jorge Villegas, who oversees operations in the San Fernando Valley, said. "We can focus on helping the girls most by getting the men who are taking advantage of them off the streets."
There are plenty of would-be johns to be caught. In one three-hour sting in mid-March along two known tracks for prostitution in Sun Valley, vice officers arrested 10 men. Every time an undercover officer went out to the corner, it was mere minutes before a customer pulled up, made an arrangement, and then either drove down a darkly lit street off San Fernando Road or pulled into the driveway of the shabby Corona Motel just off Lankershim Boulevard. Each one was all too eager to book a hotel room for the $18 hourly rate and pick up a condom for $1 at the front desk. Safety first, after all.
A similar sting in Van Nuys the same month netted 18 arrests of men for solicitation.
The stings focused on the demand side of the ongoing prostitution problem plaguing 17 tracks across the city of Los Angeles — areas where pimps direct women under their control to work and where johns know they can find prostitutes willing to take money for sexual acts.
Not too many years ago, officials acknowledge, the fight against prostitution was mostly focused on street-level vice cops arresting women off the streets, jailing them for a night and adding another misdemeanor to their record. Counseling was minimal. Johns sometimes were caught and embarrassed, but little happened to them in the way of actual penalties.
And pimps were rarely, if ever, caught or prosecuted, and side-stepped most of the shaming left for the women and johns, despite their explicit role in perpetuating the violent trade in human flesh.
But recently in Los Angeles, police brass and city leaders have been embracing new tactics — ones long championed by social workers who have heard brutal stories of women beaten, raped and sold — that portray prostitutes as victims, and the johns and pimps as the real criminals.
Across Los Angeles County, a string of diversion programs designed to lead prostitutes — mostly female, but also male — away from the streets and into education, counseling and job opportunities are getting off the ground.
Police officers and sheriff's deputies are working closely with social service providers to connect women with nonprofit groups that can help take them off the streets. Social service workers are present during LAPD task forces and every woman arrested in the San Fernando Valley for prostitution gets a list of phone numbers for help. And in what many say is a fundamental shift in how the justice system combats prostitution, law enforcement is going after the pimps in ways unheard of in the past.
One telling statistic: Just three years ago in Foothill Division, there were exactly zero arrests of pimps. Last year, there were 37. This year, there have already been 19.
"This is a priority," Los Angeles District Attorney Jackie Lacey said. "And naturally, when it's a priority, you see people getting creative. Now, with cell phones, we can see if they've texted pictures of underage girls they are making arrangements for. That can be child pornography charges. Texting girls. There are a lot of things we can do, and we've got some ideas — as well as just simply not ignoring it."
Along the northern stretches of San Fernando Road and Sepulveda Boulevard, in particular, where cheap motels and liquor stores dot the urban landscape, solo women can be seen walking the corners at all hours. Some dress in absurdly tight, short dresses that hide little. Others do equally well just clad in T-shirts, flat shoes and jeans.
The pre-dawn hours are also surprisingly popular, vice cops say, as workers on their way to early morning job sites cruise by the girls hanging out in front of strip malls and motels.
The ritual is the same almost every time: a car slowly pulls to the side of the road. A woman hanging out cautiously approaches to see if the driver is interested. Sometimes the driver is just pulling over to check directions or make a call. Other times, they make eye contact, she approaches and begins negotiations, then arranges to meet the john somewhere close. Typically rates can cost as little as $15 for some types of sexual favors, ranging up to no more than $100 for a full hour of any service, police say.
"I'm appalled with how young these girls are, and how many men are willing to do this," said Los Angeles City Councilwoman Nury Martinez. "So many different types of men at all hours of the day and night. It's just wrong."
Martinez lives in a quiet suburban neighborhood not far from the Valley's other main prostitution track, a segment of Lankershim Boulevard in Sun Valley that has long been a center of the vice trade.
After World War II, male workers were drawn to the area by the railroad cargo yards and the 5 Freeway, and motels for travelers and truckers sprung up nearby. Now those aging post-war motels have become cheap rent-by-the-hour joints, while truck stops catering to drivers headed for the Central Valley have also become hubs for illicit activity, police say.
When Martinez took office last summer, she met with residents who voiced their concerns about what some say had become a blatant, in-your-face flaunting of prostitution laws.
"About 10 years ago, a lot of the pimps from other areas of L.A. started bringing their girls up here and it got so out of hand," said Jesse Torrero, a community activist and real estate agent who has lived in Sun Valley for more than 60 years. "They were flashing people, doing degenerate things with their bodies. The pimps were sending their youngest-looking girls over to the high school. It was absurd."
Martinez responded by meeting with LAPD officers, joining them on task forces along the Sepulveda corridor in Van Nuys — a stone's throw from her district office and the San Fernando Road corridor near her home. She said she had to see what residents were seeing, and was appalled by what she found.
"They see it and they don't know what to do," she said. "This goes on all day long. It's one thing to read about it and it's another thing to see it.
In February, Martinez stood in a median on Sepulveda Boulevard in Van Nuys between two motels considered notorious hubs of prostitution-related activity to announce a new partnership between the city and two arms of law enforcement to combat the problem. One of the motels, The Voyager Motor Inn, was shuttered late last year after a suspicious fire, but officials say there are many more to choose from, and the corridor attracts vice at all hours.
Martinez stood side-by-side with Villegas, City Attorney Mike Feuer and representatives from local nonprofit and community groups to announce a partnership to tackle the San Fernando Valley part of the larger problem from multiple angles: dedicated Prostitution Enforcement Detail officers assigned to the Sun Valley and Sepulveda corridors; expanded diversion programs for adult trafficking victims through social service partnerships, which could help keep them out of jail and in education programs; and a renewed commitment to targeting pimps, who are increasingly affiliated with gangs.
It also includes enforcement actions against businesses that support prostitution and a stepped-up effort to make soliciting prostitution less attractive for johns, including a mandatory $600 one-day "john school."
The programs will complement citywide and countywide efforts, including Lacey's First Step program, launched in January, that allows juvenile trafficking victims to avoid prosecution for prostitution if they agree to an 18-month wraparound program to get them out of street life.
Also legislation is winding its way through Sacramento that would stiffen penalties for pimping and soliciting, and similar legislation is also being introduced on the national level. In 2012, California voters passed Proposition 35, which increased fines and sentences as well as requiring human traffickers to register as sex offenders and disclose Internet activities and identities.
Victims, Not Criminals
The new mindset is driven by the realization by city and county leaders of something that long-time social workers in the area say has always been true: most prostitutes didn't choose the life as a career. They are victims, often of violent criminals who have seduced, tricked and trapped increasingly younger women.
Stephany Powell, executive director of the Van Nuys-based Mary Magdalene Project, which has partnered with LAPD, said she saw this during her previous career as a vice cop.
"Being out there I used to wonder 'why are we always arresting the girls?' So I would make sure that I would do more john stings and that we would actively look for pimps because I understood just by working with the women that it was not something you could just arrest your way out of.
"I'm really happy about this paradigm shift because I think people are getting that what we used to see out there on Sepulveda, in our heads, everybody was out there by choice. Young, old, whatever, every one was out there by choice. It isn't really by choice, even if it seems like that."
The language is also changing. The term "hookers" — implying women who lure men to sin — is frowned upon now, and even "prostitute" is iffy in the new lexicon of the fight to stop human sex trafficking.
While the momentum has been building for years -- driven by an increasing number of studies and anecdotal proof human trafficking is spreading, and affecting younger and younger victims — the last two years have proven pivotal, say police officers and case workers charged with connecting victims to resources.
Los Angeles County Supervisor Don Knabe, who has launched a public awareness campaign on billboards and digital displays near bus stops, train stations, airports and other locations where pimps troll for runaways, said stronger legislation and the focus on the demand side of the problem is key.
"No child grows up wanting to be bought and sold for sex in the streets of their community," Knabe said. "They are victims, often forced into this life by brutal violence and threats."
"The true criminals are the scumbags that buy and sell young boys and girls for money, and get off with a slap on the wrist."
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