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Prostitution arrests die along with Salt Lake City vice squad

Published March 25, 2013 7:55 am

2012 saw 92% drop in arrests; a reorganized team is focusing on arresting pimps and johns.
This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2013, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.

It was hard to say who was more brazen — the hooker or the john.

Most men patronizing prostitutes on a recent weekday avoided the group chatting in front of a business between 1300 and 1700 South on Salt Lake City's State Street.

But not this guy.

Just shy of 3:30 p.m., his black car slid to a halt. Down rolled the window. A young woman in a long gray shirt and black pants sidled up to the window. They exchanged indecipherable words before the woman walked off, apparently unable to come to terms with her prospective customer.

The man then casually climbed out of his car and briefly peered into a shop window filled with women's clothes and lingerie before leaving.

This part of Salt Lake City — along with several others — is a known area for buying and selling sex. But police have shifted how they address the crime.

In 2012 — the same year the police department disabled its vice squad — prostitution-related arrests in Salt Lake City plunged a staggering 92 percent from the prior year, a Salt Lake Tribune analysis found. Police reported 31 arrests for commercial sex crimes last year, compared with 393 such arrests in 2011.

Salt Lake Police Chief Chris Burbank said he's not surprised by the drop.

"I think our numbers are reflective of the fact that we were not doing vice enforcement [in 2012]," Burbank said. "We did not do vice enforcement the way we have in the past. [It's the type of crime where] the more you put officers out working it, the more arrests they're going to make."

Early last year, Burbank disbanded the vice squad after questionable practices by some detectives, including investigating such crimes outside city limits and violating the police department's "no touch policy" as they sought to get evidence of prostitution.

Burbank also said a lot of commercial sex crimes are shifting from the streets to the Internet, and that calls from residents reporting cars stretched 10-deep around their neighborhoods are on the decline.

"It's just not a visible crime anymore," Burbank said. "It goes less noticed."

But residents living in the neighborhoods that traditionally have seen the most money-for-sex trade said it's still there, even if it's not being actively reported.

Daytime is busy • Tammy, a 38-year-old woman who asked The Tribune not to use her last name, lives along State Street and said she does what she can to help the prostitutes.

She pulled out a cellphone and flashed through photos she has taken: This woman has AIDS and doesn't use protection or tell the men she's with about her illness. That one has been walking the streets for several months, and Tammy watched her get out of one john's car and into another just minutes later.

She's seen women dumped beaten and naked by johns who decided they didn't want to pay for services rendered.

On that afternoon, buyers were persistent, throwing out pickup lines: "Do you need a ride?" "Are you OK?" "Do you date?" "Show me your breasts."

In less than an hour, Tammy pointed out no fewer than four prostitutes walking the street — and that didn't include those who were plying their trade at local motels with the full knowledge, she claimed, of the motel owners.

"Every room over there is loaded," Tammy said, pointing to a nearby motel.

Some women have glazed eyes — a clear sign of drug addiction. One even bluntly asks for crack.

Police say most of the women working the streets are addicts looking for a quick fix and often work near where they also buy drugs. Women who prostitute online could be simply looking for "easy money, and there's lots of it," said Lt. Dave Askerlund, who heads the department's new organized crime division, which also will tackle vice.

Salt Lake City police say daytime hours, surprisingly, are a popular time to shop for sex. Men take advantage of traditional work hours because they have to be home in the evening.

And it's easy to pick out the working women during daylight hours.

"[During the day] you can tell what they are," Tammy said, referring to their caked-on makeup and provocative dress. "They're trying to slut it out."

Tammy said johns frequently stop her while she's out walking. In the past, she has had to carry fist-sized rocks in her pockets and has actually thrown them at vehicles to ward off johns who wouldn't leave her alone.

"I don't [sell sex] for a living," she said. "I'm not a prostitute."

Getting off the streets • Late last year, the department reinstituted the vice squad under the umbrella of the organized crime division. Askerlund said the new squad plans to target more heavily the people who are enabling the crime — the pimps and the customers.

"We're trying to head down that road where we're dealing with people who are making money off of people who are making money off this business," Askerlund said. "We'll switch gears and try to focus on the demand side of things. That would be the johns."

Since late last year, vice officers have been back out again, and arrest numbers already reflect it. Nearly half of all the commercial sex-related arrests in 2012 came at the end of last year with the re-creation of the vice unit, which also targets large-scale gambling operations and other crimes.

The lower 2012 numbers may also reflect the fact that some prostitution-related offenders are arrested for prior outstanding warrants rather than for new sex-related offenses, officials cautioned.

In any case, the number of arrests and citations in the future may be lower than in years past because detectives hope to divert prostitutes into structured programs to permanently get them off the streets, Burbank said.

"We're trying to get the resources to get them out of that lifestyle. Otherwise it's like trying to shovel sand the wrong way up an hourglass," Askerlund said.

But that may be easier said than done. Tammy said she tries to help some of the girls who work her neighborhood by providing no-strings-attached clothing and support. But she said few accept her offer to help them get off the streets.

Salt Lake City police also have found few women willing to get help, said spokesman Sgt. Shawn Josephson.

He said officers refer prostitutes to the Fourth Street Clinic, where they can get health care and referrals to other services.

"We have yet to have any of the prostitutes take advantage of this offer for assistance," he said. "Until we get somebody to take advantage of it, we won't know how successful it is."

He said officers have been providing information about the clinic to known prostitutes or those stopped by officers.

"We basically want them to get their life straightened out," he said. "Our preference is they get the help they need before we have to arrest them."

Kristy Chambers, CEO of Fourth Street, said the clinic has seen some prostitutes in recent months, although it's not known if any of those referrals were from police agencies.

"It's a need that is out there, and we're trying our best to address it with many, many other agencies," Chambers said. "It's a tough problem on many levels."

She said women being prostituted are victimized — some by their own family members.

Josephson said police agencies in Salt Lake County are working to create an optional program similar to the state's drug courts that will tackle prostitution-related offenses.

"They're working with the courts trying to work out something where instead of doing time or being locked up, these prostitutes have the opportunity to turn their lives around."

On a recent day in March, the squad was out in force and issued three tickets. One prostitute got busted twice — in the morning. When police actually take one to jail, it's not uncommon for them to be back on the street within hours.

"They get caught up in it and they're stuck," Burbank said. "We want to stop the behavior."

In addition to Internet and street crimes, a major focus of the new vice squad will be human trafficking — where people are brought into the country and held captive while they work off debts — as well as those who exploit minors.

When it comes to street trafficking, Burbank said he expects the opening of the TRAX line along North Temple and the revitalization of that area will drive the numbers down because there will be more eyes watching.

"It certainly makes it harder for people to do business in nontraditional locations," he said.

In the meantime, Burbank has a warning.

"This is something we take seriously and we pay attention to," he said. "And if you're engaged in the behavior of exploiting [people] … we're going to also deal with you."

jstecklein@sltrib.com

Twitter: @sltribjanelle