Shame for the shameful

Our view: For a besieged neighborhood, prostitution is hardly a 'victimless' crime

December 28, 2009

Brooklyn residents are doing laudable service recording the license-plate numbers of motorists prowling their neighborhood in search of prostitutes. As The Sun's Peter Hermann reported recently, residents are alerting the cops, who check the plates against vehicle descriptions, then send the registered owners a "Dear John" letter warning the car has been spotted in suspicious circumstances.

While the letters, written on official police stationary, don't actually charge the owners with committing a crime - there's no law against driving slowly on a public thoroughfare - most recipients get the message. The mere threat of exposure and public humiliation - not to mention the domestic complications likely to ensue with spouses and family members - are enough to make most potential thrill-seekers think twice about revisiting the area.

We don't buy the idea that reporting suspicious license plates constitutes some kind of vigilante justice or involves citizens taking the law into their own hands. The residents, who know their streets better than anyone, are right to say police can't be everywhere and that they need the community's help; they are simply providing that support by giving the cops the information they need to do their jobs. Neighborhood watch groups like the one in Brooklyn are the first line of defense against all sorts of crimes that could be deterred if the perpetrators knew they were being watched. If anything, the city needs more of them.

Nor are we impressed by the arguments of some defense attorneys that letters from the police risk besmirching the names of perfectly innocent people who just happen to turn up somewhere looking as if they were trolling for hookers. In an age of GPS navigation devices that alert motorists to every twist and turn in the road, the notion that kerb-crawling drivers are just looking for a parking space or trying to find an unfamiliar street address is a bad joke. Moreover, police are sending the drivers letters, not posting their names on the Internet.

To the extent that efforts like the one in Brooklyn are successful, residents are to be commended for helping to undermine a vicious system that cruelly exploits women and under-age girls, abets drug dealing and violent crime and contributes to the dangerous spread of sexually transmitted diseases such as HIV. Prostitution is hardly a "victimless" crime, as its apologists often argue: When the social and public health costs of the trade are all added up, the whole community suffers from its consequences.

If would-be Johns seeking sex for hire fear discovery will bring shame on them for their shameful behavior, so be it. The more residents and police cooperate to rid their streets of such predators, the harder it will be for prostitutes and their clients to flout the law with impunity.

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