NC: Fighting prostitution takes community effort, expert says

Anderson officials say they are working on the problem
By Liz Carey , Charmaine Smith-Miles
Monday, August 25, 2008

ANDERSON COUNTY — The toll prostitution takes on communities and people can be seen on some streets in south Anderson.

Drugs, crime, violence, vandalism and blight permeate the area, the cousins of the world’s oldest profession. Experts and community leaders say the solution requires everyone within a community to come together.

While police continue to make arrests, residents and business people on the south side of Anderson say the problem isn’t getting any better.

Since 2005, the Anderson County Sheriff’s Office has arrested only 68 women and men for prostitution. In the past three years, the Anderson City Police Department has made only seven arrests for prostitution, records show. <!–more–>

Getting rid of prostitution in the community has been a concern for local leaders, but experts say it’s going to take more than a few arrests and undercover operations to make an impact.

Ronal Wietzer, professor of sociology at George Washington University and an expert in the sex industry, says effectively combating prostitution requires targeting not only prostitutes, but also those who solicit them. In addition, he says, it requires a community coming together on the issue and offering treatment and rehabilitation for the women who sell themselves on the street.

“Some cities have increasingly focused on the prostitute’s customers instead of the workers themselves,” he says. “Evidence has shown that a guy who is arrested for solicitation has a very low recidivism rate. In one study, only 2 percent of those arrested for solicitation had been arrested again for the same crime three years later.”

“Johns,” or the men who solicit women for sex, are more likely to be concerned about the impact their arrest will have on their families, their friends, their reputation and their jobs, he says.

Just as much as deterring those who frequent prostitutes, communities need to offer incentives to prostitutes to get them out of the industry, Wietzer says.

“Instead of just arresting people and letting them go after a few days in jail, we need to increase the opportunities to get people off the streets,” he says.

That approach seems to work.

In Tacoma, Wash., residents formed a community group called Safe Streets to deal with the issues of prostitution, crime and blight in their neighborhoods.

Steve Jewell, deputy director of Safe Streets, said the group brought together local organizations, community members and local government to help individuals and neighborhoods combat crime and take back their streets.

Prostitution also was an issue, he said. The group worked to not only eliminate prostitution, but also to eliminate the demand for sex workers.

Safe Streets works to deter “johns” through “John School,” comparable to traffic school where those charged with soliciting someone for sex are taken through a course that shows the impact of their actions. Those arrested for prostitution are also given help in getting out of the life.

“A lot of them want out,” he said. “They are just so pulled down by their own life, they can’t deal with it.”

But the key to Safe Streets success, he said, was a concerned community working in concert to bring the issues before county and city government.

“One of the things you will find is that these crimes will move into an area that is not organized and doesn’t care,” he said. “When we go out and march through the neighborhoods peacefully we let the Johns know they are not welcome.”

Anderson Mayor Terence Roberts agrees that those areas in south Anderson have changed. Prostitution has moved into these communities as homeowners left and houses became rental properties, he says.

“On Whitner and Market streets, many of those homes were owned and not rented,” Roberts says. “My observation is, when I go to St. Mary’s of the Angels (church) on White Street during the week, there are women walking the streets. And we receive complaints from business owners.”

Roberts also emphasized the need for residents to get involved.

“I would think, by the very nature of it, it is a very hard thing to see — as far as people being concealed,” the mayor says.

Seeing a woman walking on the street is not a reason to charge someone, law enforcement officials say. And catching them in the act is harder than one might expect. So having residents or business owners tip off the police as to where prostitutes are conducting their business is a big help, he says.

“It’s a matter of getting the people who live in affected areas to trust the officers to pass that information on,” Roberts says.

He believes part of the solution is patrols and visibility of officers.

Anderson Police Chief Martin Brown has more officers on patrol between the midnight to dawn hours to increase their presence during high-crime hours.

Both the police and sheriff’s office say that by working with community groups, they hope to identify the problems and move the prostitutes and drug dealers out of their areas. In 2004, there was a surge in the creation of grassroots community groups on Anderson’s southside.

Since then, those groups — which bring together residents, public officials and law enforcement — were instrumental in alerting the authorities to criminal activity in their neighborhoods. Roberts says those who come to the meetings are doing what is needed: passing on the information they have about prostitutes and where they are.

The one thing that could help even more, he said, is for more residents to get involved in those meetings.

But how do you combat a crime that is at once undercover and out in the open?

On the Internet, places such as the VIP Spa in Anderson, are listed as places men can go for more than just a massage. VIP Spa was one of the sites of an undercover bust for prostitution in 2007.

Even Web sites as innocuous as citysearch.com provide detailed reviews of the services women at the spa are willing to perform.

Web sites like World Sex Guide, list provide reviews on an Anderson hotel.

On craigslist.com, a Web site offering free classifieds, women advertise themselves for sex. In the Greenville/Upstate area, more than 180 women listed themselves as looking for men, many of them listing their prices — from $125 to $250 per hour, and many with pictures.

Those web sites are kept under surveillance by law enforcement as well, said Capt. Roy Stuart, with the Anderson County Sheriff’s Office.

“You can put anything on the Internet, but that doesn’t necessarily make it true,” Stuart said. “We know the Web sites, too. And we do investigate them. We never forget. It may take us a while, but we never forget about it. … We know where the problem is.”

Investigations of sex for sale, however, take time and resources.

Specially trained officers must ensure that conversations with the suspect are recorded and that they do not use words that may be construed as enticing or entrapment. In addition, officers need to know the lingo used and how to respond to a suspect’s questions.

And undercover stings are an expensive way to catch one or two people, said Capt. Kevin Marsee, head of the Anderson City Police Department’s special forces.

“If you’re going to do an undercover operation, it’s going to take you a lot of personnel. … It’s going to take a team, decoys, unmarked cars. … You may work for three hours to arrest one prostitute,” he said. “Or you may work four or five hours to arrest three or four people soliciting prostitutes.”

The solution, he says, is to make an area inhospitable for crime in general.

“If you go into an area and you just look for all violations — whether it’s someone with a crack pipe or whatever — if you can arrest for other offenses and let the neighborhood know that this is an area that is going to be dominated by the police, then … the word gets out that this isn’t the place to go,” he said.

Marsee said the city’s work has effectively pushed the elements out of the city and into the county. Eliminating it from the county will mean the city and county have to work together, Weitzer said.

“When the police start cracking down on an area and they don’t do it every few weeks, but … in a sustained way over a period of two or three weeks, prostitutes will move out of the areas,” he said. “There’s a displacement effect. What you need is for law enforcement to work in unison if you want to eliminate it from an area.”

But, law enforcement officials say, the problem will never go away completely.

“Prostitution and drugs will always be there,” Marsee said. “There’s no way to eradicate it completely.”

Chrissy Adams, 10th Circuit Solicitor agrees that drugs are a major part of the problem.

“Prostitution remains a challenge for our community but I believe that drug dependency which often leads to prostitution is of greater concern,” she said. “If we can make strides in reducing drug dependency in Anderson then I believe there will be a corresponding reduction in prostitution.”

Jailing prostitutes is not the solution, she said. Instead, she backs community support of places like the Shalom House to provide alternatives for the women.

“Jail may sober them up for a time but if they have nowhere to go but the streets then that is where they will go back.”

Link to original story on Anderson Independent Mail

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