By Jenna Johnson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, September 24, 2007
Deborah Shepard watches from her kitchen window as the prostitutes flirt, strut, flash and strike business deals along busy Eastern Avenue. On any given day, she sees three or four on the corner by her house, desperate for quick cash.
Sometimes, D.C. police show up, pushing the activity over to the Maryland side of the street, which forms the D.C.-Prince George's County line. But usually, Shepard said, she sees a scene of uninterrupted commerce, with johns circling in cars and prostitutes looking for opportunities. Farther up the street, the activity usually is the same, she said, with two or three prostitutes lingering day or night outside a liquor store.
The prostitution trade, long centered downtown, has increased in recent years in several neighborhoods across the city, police and residents said. Prostitutes often meet johns on street corners, at bus stops or outside convenience stores and fast-food restaurants. Then they head out to have sex in nearby alleys and parks or on quiet streets -- sometimes even back yards.
The Washington Post reviewed eight months of solicitation cases filed this year -- covering January through August -- and found pockets of trouble in the Brentwood, Deanwood and Trinidad areas of Northeast Washington, along Georgia Avenue NW and in the southernmost parts of the city. All told, police brought charges in more than 750 cases during that period.
Residents have been pressuring police to act, and authorities stepped up enforcement last summer.
Shepard, 44, has lived in the Fairmont Heights neighborhood in Maryland for two years. She said that she has seen an increase in prostitution and that it frightens and unnerves her as she walks to and from nearby Metro and bus stops.
"This is my line in the sand," she said. "I don't always feel safe. You should feel safe in your own neighborhood."
Robert Contee started a crackdown this year after taking over as commander of the city's 6th Police District, which includes neighborhoods along the border in Northeast and Southeast Washington. His officers patrol Eastern Avenue and other streets, monitor known prostitutes and their customers, and regularly conduct sting operations posing as prostitutes and johns.
On a typical weeknight, Contee said, about two dozen prostitutes are working along Eastern Avenue. There are more on weekends.
The police department divides the city into patrol service areas, or PSAs. From January through August, prosecutors pursued 138 solicitation cases in PSA 602, the Eastern Avenue area that includes Deanwood. The number of cases was larger than anywhere in the city except in the downtown and Logan Circle areas.
"If you're out there and prostituting, you are going to jail," Contee said during a recent weekend sting. "If you're a john and you're coming here for sex, you're going to jail. That's the bottom line."
Despite the tough talk, Contee acknowledged that the arrests seem to have only a slight impact on curbing prostitution, noting that there remains no shortage of people to arrest during monthly stings and weekly raids. If the problem did move at all this summer, he said, it was just into Maryland.
The commander plans to continue targeting the activities this fall -- and winter and next year. "It's like a bad cold," he said. "I wish it would go away, but it just won't."
In Brentwood, an area off New York Avenue, residents said they are more accustomed to the problem but still repelled by it.
"World's oldest profession," said Raymond Chandler, whose family has lived in the Northeast neighborhood for five generations. "Can't get rid of it."
Prostitution flares up about once every five years in that area, Chandler said, and now it's back in season. The only way to stop it, he said, is for neighbors to self-police and call 311 when they see activity pick up.
"We know who belongs to our community and who doesn't," said Chandler, a community activist.
Sgt. Mark Gilkey, a 25-year member of the citywide prostitution enforcement unit, said residential areas tend to draw drug-addicted, impoverished or homeless prostitutes who feel they have better chances of avoiding arrests and fines there.
Gilkey's unit has about a dozen officers. The number of police working on prostitution enforcement is difficult to pinpoint, he said, because various patrol commanders, including Contee, often assign officers to target certain blocks.
Some neighbors who live off Eastern Avenue said they have happened upon prostitutes and their customers in the act or awakened to find used condoms on their lawns. The prostitutes -- women and men, young and old -- are hard to miss, they said.
"They're everywhere," said Ajia Meux, 29, who owns a condominium in Deanwood.
A social worker, Meux said she knows that pushing prostitution out of her neighborhood is only part of the long-term answer. Larger, complicated social issues are involved, she said, including unemployment and drug and alcohol abuse. But nevertheless, she said, "no one wants sex workers in their neighborhoods. I don't want them in my neighborhood."
Others said police should try a different approach if they hope to end the cycle. Darby Hickey works for Different Avenues, a nonprofit group that advocates for the rights of marginalized individuals, including prostitutes, whom she refers to as "sex workers." She has been surveying them about the effects of police enforcement.
The results are confirming what Hickey had heard anecdotally: Being arrested for prostitution often means they are harassed and embarrassed by police, forced into further debt by fines, booked in jails far from their homes or other jobs, and left with police records that make finding employment even more difficult. And many become victims themselves.
"You wouldn't believe the number of stories that we hear about people being raped, assaulted or robbed," Hickey said. "They never go to the police, because they are afraid they will get arrested or the police will have the attitude, 'You're a sex worker. You got what you deserve.' "
D.C. police and prosecutors said they have targeted johns and prostitutes equally, and a review of a recent sample of cases reflected a fairly even balance. Penalties are the same for buying or selling sex. The maximum for a first offense is 90 days in jail and a $500 fine. Those with three or more arrests face up to 180 days in jail and $1,000 fines.
Prosecutors often recommend diversion programs, said Lisa Greene, acting chief of the U.S. attorney's office's misdemeanor trial section. Johns with no record of recent violent convictions can pay $300 to attend "John School," a day full of lectures about sex addictions and the negative effects of patronizing prostitutes from psychologists, police officers, former prostitutes, health professionals, prosecutors and neighbors. The johns also have the opportunity to be tested for HIV. The classes, held once a month, typically have 40 to 50 participants.
Profits finance an early intervention class and a treatment program for arrested prostitutes, and successful completion of classes can lead to the cases being dismissed. Andray Blatche, a member of the Washington Wizards basketball team, recently agreed to attend the day-long seminar after police arrested him this summer; if he successfully completes it, his case will be dropped.
"Generally, we recognize that something's driving this and recommend sentences that fit that," Greene said. "If someone has an addiction, we can't ignore that. But if someone's in for their ninth time, we're going to be more stringent."
Meanwhile, the police keep responding to neighborhood pressures, with mixed results.
Last spring, residents of the Eastern Plaza condominium complex in the Deanwood area off Eastern Avenue were unnerved by the handful of prostitutes who would gather in front of the community, sitting on ledges and leaning up against walls, said Sherrie Lawson, the condo association's president.
Then one resident, a police officer in another district, offered to bring her cruiser home at night and park it in front of the building.
Overnight, the display of bare legs and excess cleavage disappeared from the immediate area.
Now the street workers congregate on the nearest corner.
"They aren't gone," Lawson said. "They just moved."