Taking a new tack against prostitution Coordinated effort seeks more than arrests

November 30, 1997|By TaNoah Morgan | TaNoah Morgan,SUN STAFF

Officer Michelle McBride and some of her colleagues in Anne Arundel County's western police district are trying to solve a problem that has troubled the world for thousands of years and their corner of it for decades.

They're trying to remove the prostitutes who work the strip of Laurel-Fort Meade Road at Whiskey Bottom Road through a combination of drug and alcohol treatment, housing and job training -- not just arrests.

Prostitutes have routinely been a nuisance to residents in Bacontown, the small community near where the prostitutes gather.

But impatience about resolving the problem has become more pronounced over the past few years as the multimillion-dollar Russett development, with 3,000 pricey homes, stores and hotels, has been constructed.

Although community groups have offered health screening to the women, and county police have operated enough stings to clear the corners for a short time, this is one of the first projects to combine the efforts of county police, the Health Department, community leaders, shelters and the courts.

Instead of arresting women over and over in an attempt to push them out of the area, McBride and fellow officers spend their shifts working to push them into a better life. After being arrested, the women are offered drug and alcohol treatment from the Health Department through the courts during a hearing.

In the meantime, McBride seeks housing and job training for the women. She said she hopes some of the housing and training will be supplied from community churches.

"For a while, none of the girls had any counseling or screening or anything," said McBride, a member of the Western District Tactical Patrol Unit. "But the johns, when they are arrested, they're required to do mandatory AIDS testing and drug screening" by the courts.

Widespread substance abuse

The women were usually turned back to the street -- sometimes within hours -- where they continued the cycle of sex for money for drugs, McBride said. Another woman, a former prostitute, agreed.

"There is not one girl out there that's not out there to get money for the drugs," said the former prostitute, who asked that her name be withheld because she did not want to embarrass her young son. "And I'm quite sure all the men that were out there too would do what they had to do."

About a half-dozen regulars frequent the four corners between Starting Gate Liquors, Motel 6, 7-Eleven and the Starting Gate Shell gas station, according to McBride.

Some are mothers. Two were pregnant the last time they were arrested on prostitution and drug charges. One of them lost her baby during premature labor. A few of the women were raised in impoverished Bacontown.

All of the women have substance abuse problems, and they routinely alternate between selling their bodies and spending their profits on extended drug highs, McBride said.

"To talk to most of these girls it's kind of difficult to see how they got out there," said McBride, mentioning one woman who was a computer programmer before she got hooked on crack cocaine and turned to prostitution. "If they could push themselves into rehab, they could be productive citizens."

Breaking the cycle

That's what one woman, who used to frequent the corner, said she is trying to do. Distraught after a short-lived marriage dissolved, she said she slipped into drinking and smoking crack, and found herself on the streets again.

"I would use drugs because I was lonely. I had nobody around me," she said. "I fell back into it and messed up."

That's the kind of woman that county agencies hope to reach by sending them through drug court, an option that until this month was available only for people charged with petty theft or drug possession.

It's a simple deal that begins when the woman is arrested: The woman may plead guilty to the drugs or prostitution charges, go through substance-abuse counseling, and if successful with treatments, get a suspended sentence or probation before judgment. Counseling continues for a year after sentencing.

"The carrot in this program is that they're guaranteed if they remain in the program, they will not be sent to jail," said Assistant State's Attorney Michael Cogan, who is working with police.

Since the program's implementation, the Laurel prostitutes have avoided arrest, so none have had the chance to enter it yet. The divorcee with the crack habit, one of two pregnant women arrested during a prostitution sting last month, did not get into the program because she was immediately hospitalized with abdominal pains and later lost her baby.

McBride called the woman's family to make sure she had a place to go after getting out of the hospital. McBride has offered to help the woman get job training.

Several weeks later, the woman said she is going to Alcoholics Anonymous sessions and trying to get her life back together.

Finding shelter

Police fear the cold weather may have driven many of the regulars indoors to area hotels. They also fear the detectives' faces are becoming familiar. One four-hour sting operation last week netted no prostitutes, just one john and two drug arrests.

In the meantime, McBride is trying to find shelter for the women while they await their drug court hearing -- usually about three weeks after the arrest. Drug addictions have made them difficult to place, but McBride wants to make sure the area hotels won't be a resting place.

"We're hoping to find rooms for them because a lot of these shelters won't take anyone with known drug problems," she said.

In the past few weeks, McBride has met with hotel managers and asked them not to rent rooms to prostitutes or pimps who frequent the area. The state's attorney's office is following up with a letter asking the same thing.

But if it does no good, Cogan said: "We would seek any applicable civil or criminal laws" to prosecute.

Pub Date: 11/29/97

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