A stretch of U.S. 1 in Jessup and North Laurel that has long been known as a haven for prostitutes has recently gained another reputation: an area where police are cracking down on those looking to pay for sex.
"I have seen some improvement," Howard County Council member Calvin Ball said last week, after police made more than 50 arrests in the area during the past two months.
The arrests of 19 men Oct. 2 accused of soliciting female officers posing as prostitutes were the result of the second reverse prostitution operation in Laurel in less than a month and the third since a new undercover officer took over in August as the operation's lead detective.
A similar sting Sept. 4 in Jessup resulted in 16 arrests. Twenty-two arrests were made in an Aug. 21 operation in North Laurel. Before that, the only other reverse prostitution operation this year netted 17 arrests April 3 in Jessup.
"The new guy is full of energy. He wanted to get his feet wet and get this operation under his belt," said Lt. Glenn Case, a 20-year Howard County police veteran who has been commander of the vice and narcotics division for 18 months.
Because the operation is done undercover, police have declined to identify the new lead detective or his predecessor, who was on the job for four years before being promoted.
Police usually used reverse prostitution operations "three or four" times a year, Case said. "It's very effective to hit the area hard in a short amount of time because they know we're serious."
Case thinks the message is getting through to the prostitutes, the men who drive up and down U.S. 1 looking for sex, and the community at large.
Case said two communities in particular, Cedar Villa Heights in Jessup and Amber Woods in North Laurel, have complained about prostitution.
"It's been going on for decades," said Howard County police spokeswoman Sherry Llewellyn, referring to an area that has attracted prostitutes because of its proximity to motels and a truck stop.
The stings have increased in the past few months, she said.
"We really want to send a message to the community that prostitution is not acceptable," Llewellyn said.
Case said the prostitution stings have not strained department manpower, and Llewellyn noted that most of the operations took place during officers' normal shifts. Very little overtime is used, Llewellyn said.
"If you spread it out over the course of the year, it doesn't take away from the rest of our mission," Case said.
Ball, whose jurisdiction includes the Jessup portion of the U.S. 1 corridor, said the sting operations are part of an initiative to make the area more "family-friendly."
"I'm pleased with regard to the stings and many of the other safety efforts we're working on. I hope they continue," Ball said. "Many in the community have started more of a concerted effort and being proactive in hopes of invigorating the area."
Ball said he hopes police do not concentrate on one area of U.S. 1. "If they do that, [prostitutes] will just move a mile down the road," he said.
Case won't say how many more sting operations are planned, but the recent arrests could serve as a deterrent. If enough people trolling for sex change their minds, he said, the drop in business might motivate prostitutes to leave.
"That's the goal," Case said.