Stung

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

Maria Lopez, an attorney at the public defender's office, says she has represented clients in about 70 prostitution cases over the past seven years. From her experience reviewing audiotapes of arrests, she says that decoy officers can be very aggressive in their tactics, and that many tapes don't contain good enough justifications for an arrest.

The structure of the FOPP program, which relies on fees stemming from the arrests, gives decoys the incentive to make lots of arrests — and if they can't get enough arrests for solicitation, Lopez suggests, then they may turn to loitering.

"They've set up a system for systematic prosecution and arrest for this type of crime, whether it exists or not, and so they're out there for that sole purpose," Lopez says. "They're not going to come home empty-handed."

Decoy operations don't constitute entrapment as long as undercover officers do not make the crime "unusually attractive to a law-abiding person." Decoys typically wait for men to initiate some sort of interaction, but the bar is low — even making eye contact with a decoy is all it takes to have her approach.

Lopez says one of her clients was arrested after a decoy agreed to have sex with him for $3 and a T-shirt. "How are you going to turn that down?" she asks. Another attorney recalled a long-ago incident in which a decoy agreed to sex in exchange for a bag of oranges. Officer Susan Rolovich, a longtime decoy officer, says that she has told potential clients that she would have sex for as little as $5.

As prostitution has shifted to the Internet, it has become more difficult for police officers to make arrests in street-level stings. Since 2005, the number of johns arrested has dropped steadily, according to a 2009 audit by the city's budget analyst. For many years, the fees paid by the johns covered the costs of the entire FOPP program, as well as programs for prostitutes who wanted to leave the business. But with a declining number of arrests, there are no longer enough johns to subsidize the program. In 2008, FOPP cost a total of $178,147, including $43,089 for the cost of the police decoy operations themselves, and $94,010 for the District Attorney's costs in administering the program. In the past four years, the revenue shortfall has totaled $270,374, according to the budget report, and the District Attorney's office has kept FOPP afloat with money from other projects.

The Internet has also caused major problems for prostitution enforcement.

Even as the police are heading out on their twice-weekly operations, members of MyRedBook.com may be live-updating police sightings on a discussion board labeled "Street Action."

"Not a night for the SF Mission," one May post was titled. "Looks like the LE [law enforcement] are out en force — I was on my motorcycle and witnessed them pulling over people they suspect of trolling the streets," its author warned. "Be safe out there."

On MyRedBook, which bills itself as an online resource for "Escort, Massage Parlor, and Strip Club Reviews," these self-titled "hobbyists" or "mongers" trade reviews of their favorite streetwalkers and post emphatic warnings about how to tell a decoy cop from a real prostitute. One method is the "cop check," which involves getting a free grope to prove that a woman is not a police officer.

Because of this scrutiny, officers are wary of sharing details about their enforcement strategies. The worry is that any information published in the media will be immediately posted on MyRedBook and scrutinized for more hints to avoid arrest. Ravella asked that the police vehicles and the precise locations of their stings not be described in detail, and that photographs not betray the identities of officers or johns.

But on a recent evening, Internet or no Internet, Dickson didn't have to wait on the corner for long. After she arrested the Salvadoran men, a grandfatherly man in a gray Mercedes pulls up. He's wearing a wedding ring, and he gets cited for straight solicitation.

Dickson has barely settled herself on the corner for a third time when a U-Haul truck rolls past and then pulls over. The driver claims later that he had just stopped to adjust one of his mirrors. Dickson walks up to his passenger-side window to ask whether he wants a date. The guy doesn't agree to pay her for sex — he was in the middle of helping some friends move. But he explained later that he did ask for her phone number after she let him know she was a prostitute.

Just that seemed to be enough to get him arrested for loitering.


San Francisco has a strong and vocal minority of people who think prostitution should not be a crime. Advocates of decriminalizing sex work argue that police enforcement makes prostitution dangerous, both for those who sell sex and those who buy it.

But arresting men for solicitation is relatively straightforward. Agreeing to a sex act for money is a misdemeanor, and men who do so can be arrested and cited. If first-time offenders don't want to go to FOPP's re-education program, they will be sent through the criminal justice system. It's not easy to get a conviction on any prostitution case in San Francisco — Greg Barge, managing attorney of the misdemeanor trial unit in the District Attorney's office, says the jury selection process can be a nightmare — but when the recording of the arrest is clear and convincing, the DA can sometimes secure a conviction.

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