Men don’t have to agree to sex in order to get busted in a prostitution sting. They just have to seem interested.

Law professors say that the loitering statute is dangerously vague. In a group of cities surveyed, San Francisco was the only one in which men are regularly arrested for loitering. Police officers in charge of prostitution stings elsewhere say they would not consider a loitering arrest in some of the circumstances in which San Francisco police make arrests on a weekly basis.

Because 60 percent of the men arrested for loitering are Latino, San Francisco's public defender, Jeff Adachi, said the issue raises "grave concerns" about possible discrimination, and that his office will investigate the situation.

The risk in using the loitering charge, lawyers say, is that the police may be arresting men who have no serious intent to engage in solicitation, and who pose no risk of future criminality.

Law professor Franklin Zimring questions why San Francisco doesn’t focus on Internet prostitution.
Josh Edelson
Law professor Franklin Zimring questions why San Francisco doesn’t focus on Internet prostitution.
Along Polk Street, the clack of high heels on the sidewalk is a familiar sound.
Josh Edelson
Along Polk Street, the clack of high heels on the sidewalk is a familiar sound.

The Salvadoran men who were cited for loitering were released with tickets, requiring a June 30 court date and a potential fine of $682 each. Neither of them had any sense of their legal options, or how they would defend themselves given their limited English.

"I'm going to fight it," the 20-year-old said in Spanish. He said he did not want his name printed because of the shame associated with a solicitation charge. "If it were something I did, I would be like, 'Fine.' But we haven't done anything."

It's still daylight when the unmarked car rolls out of the Hall of Justice parking lot. It's headed toward an area of the Mission where, police officers say, men often stop for sex on their way home from work. Later, the action will shift to the upper Polk Street area, as bars get busy and then empty out for the night.

Inspector Steve Ravella is at the wheel. He's a no-nonsense guy, with a scrupulous attitude and a lurking sense of humor. As he drives, he runs through the problems associated with prostitution: used condoms discarded in the street, violent pimps, johns who get robbed. He doesn't make moral arguments. Later, he will drily mention a high-prostitution area near a Mission District elementary school, where the police would catch men hoping to get a quick blow job before collecting their kids.

Prostitution stings are expensive and labor-intensive. Targeting men, the so-called johns, is a political choice as well as a practical one. "Behind every person out there selling his or her body there is a person" with a troubled history, Police Chief George Gascón said at a community meeting in January. Whether or not all sex workers would agree with this, it is the city's prevailing orthodoxy: Prostitutes are victims forced into sex work by some kind of exploitation. The ultimate goal is to rehabilitate both prostitutes and johns, Gascón said, but other kinds of enforcement must be in place for "people beyond help."

Pimps are described by many police officers as the real criminals, but they're also the hardest to catch. In recent years, as pimps have become savvier about police tactics, it has become very hard to successfully complete a pimp case. The police arrest prostitutes regularly, but they usually end up right back on the street. As a result, enforcement here often focuses on the demand side of the industry: the johns.

The goal here is education, not shaming. The officers who conduct the stings are surprisingly nonjudgmental about the men they arrest, actually going out of their way to reassure them. "If you comply, if you don't have a warrant, you can probably get a ticket and be on your way," Ravella will call out as he moves in on one john. He says the FOPP coordinator who processes the files at the DA's office will offer to call men at alternate phone numbers, or mail their forms somewhere besides their home addresses. The system makes it clear to the johns that their wives or girlfriends may never have to find out. Even the decoys, who often see men old enough to be their grandfathers offer to pay for sex, tend to view their interactions with johns sympathetically. Her job doesn't make her cynical, Dickson says: "This is just another level of helping."

To work the corner, vice officers have to keep up with street slang. It's a little funny to listen to them soberly explain that prostitutes will ask guys whether they "want a date," meaning sex, or define "bottom bitch," a pimp's number-one prostitute. But serving as a decoy can be dangerous — officers have had confrontations with pimps, and even been kidnapped and held at gunpoint — but the work is a lot safer than it used to be. In the '90s, there were fewer rules, and prostitution stings sometimes ended with the decoy in the car alongside the john and backup officers chasing them.

Things are calmer now. Decoys no longer dress like hookers, because prostitutes themselves "are trying to blend in with the crowd," Ravella explains.

This is a development attorneys have jumped on. The decoys who approach their clients, they point out in court, are ordinary-looking women in everyday clothes. They might be asking for directions. Especially if their clients speak little English, it might not be obvious that the decoy is posing as a prostitute.

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