Fighting prostitution one john at a time

December 20, 2009|By CRIME BEAT Peter Hermann peter.hermann

Bill Lehman watches the cars go by.

A red pickup truck heads south on Second Street, disappears, then returns heading north on Second Street.

"That red truck will be back," Lehman says.

Sure enough, the same red truck passes Lehman seven times in 20 minutes on the same residential block in South Baltimore's Brooklyn neighborhood.

Lehman calls out the plate number as Jessica Mazan jots it down in her log and Jessica's mother, Nancy Mazan, grabs her binoculars to confirm the sighting.

This is how these homeowners spend their nights, standing in the cold, the heat, the rain, the snow, watching the cars go by. When they're sure the driver is not lost but is, in fact, circling the block looking for a prostitute, they send the information to the Baltimore Police Department.

A sergeant reviews it, makes sure the plate matches the car's description and fires off a letter informing the registered owner that the vehicle was seen in an area known for prostitution and that its driver was involved in suspicious behavior.

"It's not to accuse them of a crime, but to let them know the community is watching," said the Southern District police commander, Maj. Scott L. Bloodsworth.

The missive is called a "Dear John" letter, and since police revived this long-defunct program in May, the cops have sent out 75 such letters, about 50 to people who live in Brooklyn who apparently use their backyards and neighbors' streets for sex. Several residents keep track of the cars, but Lehman, a 50-year-old city fire lieutenant, is by far the most prolific.

This is one weapon the city is using to drive hookers and the men who solicit them from what should be quiet city streets - not just in Brooklyn but along Wilkens Avenue in Curtis Bay and Washington Boulevard in Pigtown, where frustrated homeowners have gone a step further by videotaping pick-ups and posting pictures on the Internet.

The letters on official police letterhead shame the men, Lehman said, "especially if the wife gets the letter, or the boss gets the letter. I used to feel sorry for them but they are coming here and destroying my neighborhood." He said men slow down constantly, mistaking female neighbors heading off to work as working girls, sometimes as early as 5 on a weekday morning.

Baltimore prosecutors held a seminar this month on prostitution called, "No, it's NOT a victimless crime" during which speakers discussed various programs to stop the hookers. Baltimore police arrest about 1,200 suspected prostitutes each year, and many of them can now go into a diversion program funded by a state grant and run by the city state's attorney's office.

It started in August and of 228 arrestees, 60 were eligible (mainly because they weren't already on probation for another crime). Thirteen volunteered for the 90-day program and seven completed it successfully. "Six of them never made it to one appointment," said Assistant State's Attorney Jennifer Etheridge.

Two social workers meet with the participants and customize help - some need shelter, others ID cards, many just a bus pass. Before, they'd get arrested for prostitution and then have to sell themselves again just to afford the trip to court.

"They lost any tenuous hold they had with society," Etheridge said. "They got out and reverted to the life that they knew. We are trying to find a way to get these women from living their lives on the installment plan in our jails."

Prosecutors are also about to launch a program to help the men paying for sex by setting up a "John School" in which those arrested can avoid prosecution by paying $250 for lessons on the dangers of sexually transmitted diseases, addiction and the impact their activities have on homeowners.

For police, prostitutes are not only a blight on stable neighborhoods, but they bring pimps, robbers, trash and crime that often goes unreported because, as Bloodsworth said, "they're all out doing the wrong thing."

The police commander said that rapes have spiked in his district this year, "and about half are prostitution-related." Women take men's money and don't deliver; men get what they want and don't pay.

Bloodsworth said the "Dear John" letter and criteria used to send it were vetted by city attorneys and that of the 75 sent out thus far, not a single recipient has called to complain. And, he added, there are no repeat offenders. Still, defense attorneys question the practice of police sending target letters to people who have not been charged with a crime, and who were not committing a crime by repeatedly driving along public streets.

Lawyer Margaret Mead said police have no control over who receives or reads the letter, and that the target has "no way to defend" what he's being accused of doing in an anonymous tip that cannot be verified by law enforcement.

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