Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Lakewood tries new tactic against prostitutes

Lakewood police say prostitutes are getting more and more street-savvy in their efforts to beat the law.

That’s why city leaders, as part of their ongoing fight against the sex trade, are discussing making it illegal for a suspect to try and detect officers posing as Johns.

The proposed change in law would make it illegal for a person to try to avoid an arrest by exposing herself, touching someone sexually, asking someone to touch her or even asking the potential customer if he’s a police officer.

Lakewood Assistant Police Chief Michael Zaro said the proposal reflects the ways prostitutes have adapted to try to outwit police.

Often they will ask something like, “If you’re not a cop, touch my breast,” Zaro said.

“Tricks like that spread no matter what kind of crime it is,” he said. “It gets asked all the time.”

He told the City Council Monday that the intent of the change is so officers won’t have to touch a prostitute to make an arrest. He said doing so exposes officers to “virulent and bacterial contamination” as well as a “moral gray area” that can make them and family members uncomfortable.

The change could increase the number of officers willing to work undercover, Zaro said.

On the streets, a prostitute can often spot the difference between an undercover cop and a customer by asking for some kind of intimate physical contact.

More often than not, a refusal means the client isn’t legitimate, and the prostitute can stop talking to avoid an arrest.

The officer faces a dilemma: Should I refuse physical contact and risk blowing cover, or should I touch the prostitute against my morals?

The city proposal would allow an officer, after observing the suspected prostitute on the street, to arrest her once she asks the question.

The Lakewood City Council is scheduled to vote on it next Monday. Zaro says the changes are modeled after rules in Las Vegas.

Neither Tacoma nor Fife – which also have had prostitution problems — say they have been asked to take similar steps for their officers.

If Lakewood approves the proposal, it would be the city’s latest effort to curb prostitution, particularly in areas such as South Tacoma Way and Pacific Highway.

Police have made 55 prostitution arrests this year, 31 of which were forwarded to municipal court, officials said. Two cases of patronizing a prostitute have also gone to court this year.

City Attorney Heidi Wachter said those totals are less than in the past, as prostitution cases have generally decreased.

Part of that decrease may stem from sex sold on Web sites such as CraigsList, which has taken some transactions off the streets, Zaro said.

Part of it may owe to the city’s efforts over the last five years, which include stings and operating a “John School,” in which patrons arrested for soliciting prostitutes can get their charges dropped in exchange for learning about the ill effects of the sex trade.

The first class was held in 2005 with eight graduates, although the city hasn’t held a “John School” in a few years, Zaro said.

The city has also worked to tear down or clean up motels where prostitutes would take their clients.

“I think it’s come a long ways since the old days,” Wachter said.

The proposed changes raised some questions from the Lakewood City Council on Monday. Councilman Walter Neary asked about regulating speech instead of conduct.

“It just seems like asking a question is something someone ought to be able to do,” he said.

Councilman Ron Cronk expressed concern over whether arresting a suspect for trying to flush out an undercover cop was enough evidence for a conviction.

Wachter says the law states there has to be an agreement of sex for money. A court also would consider more than just touching, she said, such as whether a person is a known prostitute, regularly loiters in an area known for prostitution, and tries to stop or wave down passers-by.

Zaro said the issue of having to touch a customer has never been a problem for female officers posing as prostitutes.

“When it comes down to John stings, it’s a whole different situation,” he said, adding police are more concerned about undercover female officers being abducted.

The proposal that the City Council is considering would help cops minimize unclean conditions and stepping into a “moral gray area,” he said.

“They don’t have to take that physical and moral risk,” he said.
Brent Champaco: 253-597-8653

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