Salt Lake City police arrest 50 in weeklong prostitution operation

Salt Lake City police say by the end of the week, they will have arrested more than 50 people in a weeklong sting targeting prostitution.

Undercover officers have targeted those engaging in street prostitution and soliciting call girls, a news release Friday from the Salt Lake City Police Department said, in an attempt to disrupt activity by “Johns” in the Salt Lake area.

“These arrests have crossed all socio-economic boundaries, and have included married men as well as fathers,” the department said.

Under the Justice Reform Initiative, patronizing a prostitute has recently become a class A misdemeanor, meaning that suspects are booked in jail, could face up to a year of incarceration and be fined up to $2,500. During the sting, several cars were also impounded, said Detective Greg Wilking.

In the past, when officers spotted someone soliciting a prostitute, often they would issue a citation rather than take the suspect to jail, Wilking said.

The department hopes the operation will help people realize soliciting prostitution ”isn’t acceptable” and will be a “financial burden” to those who are caught.

”We’re hoping to turn off the supply of men willing to come and look for women,” Wilking said, adding that a lack of customers will drive prostitutes to “find other avenues” for making money. “If nobody is buying, they’re not selling,” the detective said.

Salt Lake City Councilwoman Erin Mendenhall on Saturday said she was pleased with the outcome of the sting. Since many “Johns” have not gone to jail for soliciting sex, Mendenhall believes the arrests and the impounding of their vehicles may have a more demonstrable effect on future choices.

“Partners and spouses probably never knew about those citations,” Mendenhall said. “The impact of those decisions ‘John’s’ make to solicit sex is probably more profound with jail time,” she said.

Prostitution has “always been prevalent” in the ”north track” along the North Temple corridor near the Interstate 15 overpass and the ”south track” along State and Main streets from 900 South to 2100 South, Wilking said. Officers have also noticed it near the shelter area in the Rio Grande district and in hotels throughout the city, he said.

Prostitution “victimizes women and entraps them in a life of drugs and mental health issues,” the news release said.

The officers involved in the sting have focused on “the people who are enabling the crime — the pimps and the customers ... rather than punishing the women being ’pimped out,” according to the release.

The department said the approach is a “better way to identify and protect victims of human trafficking.”

Mendenhall appreciates the approach. Human trafficking, she said, is a real concern and many studies have shown the devastating effect it can have on its victims, many of whom are women engaged in prostitution.

The traditional law enforcement approach of focusing on women who provide sexual services, rather than on the men who solicit them can serve to re-victimize these women, she said.

Mendenhall said she’d like to see an approach that not only reduces prostitution but also provides sex workers with the resources to help them safely exit the lifestyle and end the cycle of exploitation many have suffered.

“Simply becoming more active in arresting ‘Johns’ is insufficient to deal with the human trafficking that plays out,” she said. “We absolutely must address access to real services for survivors if we are going to move the needle on this.”