Prostitutes who once trolled the District’s 14th Street corridor may not be on the corners as much as in the past, but the illicit trade still flourishes behind hotel doors.
Since January, D.C. police have run a string of stings at hotels near Thomas Circle, luring men with fake ads on the Internet and then waiting for them to knock on a hotel room door. Police have put more than 50 alleged customers in cuffs in the past several weeks in this one neighborhood alone.
“It’s crazy,” said Police Cmdr. Jacob Kishter, who runs the 3rd District station, which includes the neighborhoods of Adams Morgan, Dupont Circle, Logan Circle, Shaw and Columbia Heights, in addition to Thomas Circle. “We could probably do this every weekend and get the same numbers.”
Kishter said he’s responding to complaints from residents, business owners and church pastors. They still see prostitutes along 14th Street, near the downtown’s now defunct red-light district, but he also noted that even when the trade goes indoors it still can attract other crime and suspicious characters.
Police in the District and elsewhere have placed ads on Web sites such as Backpage and Craigslist for years, to draw in men and make busts. What surprises people is that despite the publicity, and the occasional high-profile arrest of a public figure — such as former NBA player turned CBS sports commentator Greg Anthony — there seems to be no let-up in customers.
“The oldest profession in the world keeps on coming back,” said John Fanning, chairman of the Advisory Neighborhood Commission for Thomas Circle, where he has lived for the past 25 years. “You think people who would see that the police are on it, that there’s a sting on, and yet they still come.”
For Fanning and others who live nearby, the issue is about safety and perception. The neighborhood, along with Logan Circle, was once the District’s most-notorious stop for vice. Now, 14th Street is lined with office buildings and known for blocks of restaurants farther north. Still, Fanning said, “It’s hard to shake the old image.”
Police started their operation in January. Arrests have included 25 at the Cambria Hotel, in the 800 block of O Street NW, and about a dozen at the Donovan, a modern boutique hotel located at 14th Street at Thomas Circle that charges upward of $300 a night for a room. It is three blocks from the Doubletree Hotel on Rhode Island Avenue, where Anthony, 47, was arrested last month after police said he answered a Backpage ad placed by detectives and offered an undercover officer $80 for sex.
He was charged with solicitation for the purpose of prostitution, a misdemeanor, and prosecutors on Wednesday said they would consider dismissing the case if he completes 32 hours of community service. He has a hearing in D.C. Superior Court on June 11.
Internet discussion boards are full of people talking about similar police stings from Virginia to Maryland, some posting links to media articles and police department press releases. One such post reads: “BEWARE Police this girl is the POLICE!!!!!”
The Erotic Review, which both advertises escorts and encourages customers to rate them, noted Anthony’s arrest in the District and said it is a “warning for everyone to be on high alert. Way too much stuff going on recently, southern Maryland (18 guys), Fairfax county 38 guys, now this.”
Another poster asked, “Is there a link to the ad that he answered?”
D.C. police have declined to reveal their ads.
Fanning said that street prostitutes still come out on the weekends, generally in the hours just before dawn, walking along the bike lanes. But making rendezvous on the Internet has largely moved the street action inside. “When it’s inside, it’s not as visible,” Fanning said. “But having it known that they’re operating out of local hotels is an issue. It doesn’t alleviate the problem, it just moves it.”
Adam Briddell, the associate pastor of the Asbury United Methodist Church at 11th and K streets NW, said the prostitutes seem to work three different markets to get clients — the Internet by day, the clubs at night and the street after-hours. He said 5 a.m. near his church “is like a traffic jam” of women seeking the after-bar crowd.
He called it a “human-trafficking challenge.” He praised police for answering his cries for help but he called on the District to do more to target pimps. “It’s not like these girls are out there freelancing,” Briddell said. “All the money flows back to the pimp.”
Police have long targeted customers, and warn a single arrest can have devastating consequences even if they get off easy in court. The stigma can cost jobs and families. The District once had a “John School,” designed to both shame men and to scare them about diseases they could catch. That school closed several years ago.
“When it comes to girls on the corner, cracking down on them doesn’t really accomplish anything,” Briddell said. “There’s a total inability to meaningfully prosecute pimps, and that is the part that is most frustrating.”
Bill Miller, a spokesman for the U.S. attorney’s office in the District, said prosecutors have “placed a priority on investigating cases involving human trafficking” and has assigned someone to coordinate efforts.
There also is a Washington D.C. Human Trafficking Task Force, created in 2004, that involves local and federal authorities in the District, Maryland and Virginia, as well as more than a half-dozen nonprofit groups that work with prostitutes.
Miller said that since 2009, about 70 defendants have been prosecuted in federal and Superior courts on charges related to human trafficking. “The overwhelming majority of those cases resulted in convictions,” Miller said.
Kishter, the police commander, said that many of the women advertising on Backpage and Craigslist for hotels in Thomas Circle are former streetwalkers. But he did say that most men, once they find a cop instead of a woman behind the hotel door, don’t return.
“We have very few repeat customers,” Kishter said.