By Petula Dvorak
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, May 20, 2010; 6:26 PM
This article originally ran on Feb. 7, 2002.
The red and blue flicker of police lights flooded 15th and M streets NW. Instantly, the night air filled with beeps as women teetering on four-inch heels brought a chorus of cell phones to life.
Barely clad, they were being arrested for soliciting for prostitution on this bitter January night. The phone calls were to their pimps. In minutes, other prostitutes in downtown Washington scattered to new hot spots farther west and in far Northeast. The game of cat-and-mouse had begun.
"As much as new technology helps us, it helps the prostitutes more," said acting Sgt. Mark Gilkey, head of the D.C. police department's prostitution unit, "and we just have to keep adjusting our strategy to try and stay ahead of them."
In recent months, the sex industry has moved westward, adopted new technology and gone mobile. Traffic is up. Arrests are increasing. The typical prostitute is younger and often part of an East Coast network that moves from city to city, police said. On that route are New Jersey, Knoxville, Tampa and Miami. After a few months, the same women may well be back in the District.
Prostitution arrests have spiked since last year. December brought the largest number of winter arrests in several years. Cell phones, the Internet and an increasing reliance on luxury vehicles as mobile "offices" are factors that keep Washington's sex industry just beyond the police department's grasp.
When officers curb prostitutes' traffic in one part of the city, they have to learn the purveyors' newest patterns. For six months, this has included a move westward into downtown Washington as well as toward the Maryland border.
"We have to deal with displacement caused by our successes," Assistant Chief Brian K. Jordan said. "Our goal now is to stay on top of their movements."
The sex trade has always been particularly brazen in the nation's capital. In the early 1990s, more cars were counted circling streets several blocks from the White House at midnight than during morning and evening rush hours, said D.C. Council member Jack Evans (D-Ward 2). "Franklin Square was a circus," he said, referring to the park bounded by 13th, 14th, I and K Streets NW.
When Charles H. Ramsey came from Chicago to head the D.C. police department in 1998, he was appalled by the scantily clad procession that took over downtown at night. "I never saw anything like this in Chicago," Ramsey said. "A woman walked right up to me with everything showing."
At that time, the prostitution unit had been disbanded, and patrol officers were required to make any arrests for prostitution. Ramsey resurrected the unit, and in July 1998, its officers made 267 arrests, according to police statistics.
The trade has fluctuated dramatically since then. It's not as busy as five years ago, but in recent months, citizens have reported an uptick, police said.
A year ago January, the prostitution unit made 17 arrests; last month, it logged more than 60, according to police. "It could be that after Sept. 11, people were just more aware of things that are wrong in their neighborhoods," said Gilkey, who took over the unit in August. The unit often tries to base evening sweeps on citizen complaint calls.
Last year's upturn is the latest shift in a decades-long duel between police and citizens on the one hand, and prostitutes and their pimps on the other.
In an effort to push hookers out of residential neighborhoods, citizens have hounded the police and city council to force crackdowns. They have photographed the "johns," those soliciting sex, in an attempt to embarrass them; operated sprinklers to try to drench them; formed citizen patrols to drive them away.
In 1989, several D.C. police officers marched 24 women 1.4 miles from 14th and M streets NW to the 14th Street Bridge, where the procession ended. Virginia authorities had a fit.
A crackdown on late-night traffic in downtown prostitution zones a decade ago pushed the sex trade into residential areas such as Logan Circle. Citizen and police efforts there have now pushed it back westward toward the business areas that are lightly populated at night.
Evans believes that it is only a matter of time before visible prostitution is further reduced. "Development will push it out of the downtown area," he said. "As long as the city keeps up its level of enforcement, things will only get better."
On a recent Monday night, Officer Timothy Holmes was working undercover, stopping on street corners across the city, keeping up with the shifting hot spots of the night -- first Logan Circle, then two blocks from the White House, then along a section of Rhode Island Avenue NE. In one hour, four women offered to sell him sex and were taken to jail for the night.
Most prostitutes arrested in the District, male and female, return to the street within 24 hours, rarely spending more than a few hours in jail. "The judges are prostitutes' best friends," Evans said.
When prostitutes appear in court, it's obvious that soliciting is only one of the complex social problems in which they are enmeshed, said D.C. Criminal Courts Chief Judge Rufus King III.
"There are issues beyond prostitution with these people," King said. "There is drug use, domestic violence involving the pimps. There are often abuse and neglect issues with children, mental issues. AIDS and HIV often are a factor. They are often the victims just as much as they are the perpetrators."
According to District law, prostitutes can be sentenced to 90 days in jail and/or a $500 fine for the first arrest, 135 days in jail and/or $750 for the second offense and 180 days in jail and/or a $1,000 fine for the third and subsequent offenses.
"The fact is, they are not often given very much time," King said.
One night in late January, police lined up six women along a wall in the 2300 block of Rhode Island Avenue NE to record their names and issue warnings to stay off the streets. Four wore identical thigh-high, black vinyl boots with four-inch, clear acrylic heels. One wore nothing but a short, black jacket; another wore stockings and a thong bikini. All were shivering, shuffling and jumping in the 27-degree air.
The prostitutes compete to out-reveal the competition because that increases earnings. Pointing to the woman in the thong, Gilkey said:
"That one, she'll probably get $100 for straight sex. She's near a hotel and can probably turn four tricks in less than two hours. We think a lot of them are juveniles, but so many of them never give us real names or birth dates. Unless they're in the system somewhere else, we'll never know how old they are."
One of the women gave officer Sean Pipia three different names. He rolled his eyes. "I'm scared," she said, her teeth chattering. "I'm so scared to get locked up."
Officer Robert Deery, whose encyclopedic knowledge of the city's prostitutes makes him the special unit's archivist, recognized the 18-year-old. She "was locked up last week," Deery said, while photographing another teen for his files.
Deery speaks slowly and calmly, holds the women's purses, helps them straighten their hair for his mug shots. "Rob knows how to talk to the girls," Gilkey said. "He gets their stories from them. With the work Rob does, we're building a real good file on the prostitutes, their street names, their histories. That's something new for us."
Evans said that under Gilkey's supervision, the unit has been more aggressive and is finding new ways to tackle the shifting challenges of the sex trade.
Prostitutes in the District usually fall into one of three categories. There are "crack mamas," local neighborhood drug addicts who barter sex for drugs, Evans said.
There are female impersonators, men who dress like women or are in some stage of a sex-change operation. Last year, about half a dozen such prostitutes could be found at the corner of Fifth and K streets NW. Today, about 40 are there most nights, Gilkey said.
"Their clients are usually either high-end businessmen, like real professionals who make more than $100,000 a year and are usually white and married, or they get young, black males," said an undercover officer. "A lot of them say they're hooking to pay for their sex-change operations."
Most visibly, there are the "show girls who wear flashy outfits and are brought in by the vanload by their pimps," Evans said. These women are often recruited from small towns throughout the East Coast. They have fake IDs, many are minors and police often never know their true identities, Gilkey said.
"The nation's capital is a lucrative market," he said. "There's a transient population, people always coming and going with lots of money to burn."
Prices in the District are among the highest in the nation, ranging from $60 for oral sex to as much as $300 for intercourse, he said. "Outside of a special event like the Super Bowl or the Olympics, D.C. is the biggest market for these prostitutes," he said.
Many District prostitutes use Internet Web sites to post photos, nicknames and offers to come to hotels or accept credit card payment. Detectives use such advertising to catalog prostitutes they see on the street, Gilkey said.
One of the most notable changes in the local market has become a nationwide trend since first being seen here about a year ago -- prostitutes' reliance on vehicles instead of streetwalking.
After a zero-tolerance crackdown in the late 1990s swept the streets and new laws made it more difficult for prostitutes to solicit from the sidewalk at certain hours, many began trawling in vehicles. The gleaming dome and vanity mirror lights signal that the driver is open for business, Gilkey said.
"They just keep circling and circling until a john flags them down," Deery said. "It's kind of reversing the roles."
Pimps usually buy cars for the prostitutes, often tightening the financial bonds they hold over the women, Gilkey said.
To combat the new trend, the unit uses a decoy in a car of her own, and officers have increased their focus on the customers.
"I'm trying to think outside the box," said Gilkey, who has spent most of his 19 years on the force working prostitution cases. "When I first started out, I was gung-ho. I arrested 40, 50 girls a month. I thought that if I arrested enough girls, I could get rid of prostitution in this city. Now I know that's not the case."
Last year, Gilkey scrapped his street swagger to team with psychologists and create "john school," a court-ordered, eight-hour class offered as an alternative sentence for customers, who must pay $300.
They are shown explicit slides of sexually transmitted diseases, hear former prostitutes discuss the horrors of their trade and residents tell of front yards that are near open-air sex markets and littered with condoms, needles, feces and broken bottles.
None of the nearly 100 "john school" graduates has been rearrested for the offense, Gilkey said.
About a month ago, Gilkey began working with the U.S. attorney's office on a diversion program to help prostitutes leave the streets. Based at Fulton House, a women's shelter, the program offers child care, career counseling and protection from pimps, who are not allowed inside.
"It hasn't been as successful," Gilkey said. "Something tells me you can't do much to help the girls. They're like addicts. They've got to want to help themselves."