Stung

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

It wasn't always that way: In 2000, only a tiny fraction of the men arrested were Spanish speakers, according to Martinez' analysis of the arrest records. But, in recent years, the proportion of Latino men arrested has grown to become the majority of the arrests.

This has been a longstanding source of concern at the public defender's office. But Adachi says his office was not aware that many Latino men were arrested for loitering as well. "The court and the District Attorney should be concerned about a disproportionate number of Latino men being arrested for a charge where the evidence is also questionable," he says. He says the high percentage of Latinos raises "grave concerns," especially because the men who are arrested are given the option to attend the John School — and pay a fine of up to $1,000 — before their cases are examined to see whether the charges are provable.

Erica Terry Derryck, a spokeswoman for the District Attorney's office, says that the point of the program is to give men the chance to avoid the criminal court system altogether.

Because of a lack of comprehensive records, it's hard to find out what happens to men picked up for loitering. According to statistics from the District Attorney's office, most don't end up at the John School, even though most are eligible. Only 34 of the men arrested for loitering chose to attend the school in 2009, about a third of the total arrests, and the proportion was even lower in 2008.

Barge says the District Attorney sets aside some loitering cases, hoping that the same men will get cited again — which, he says, does happen occasionally. But most loitering cases are transferred to community court, where the men have a chance to tell their side of the story to a panel of community members who serve as judges.

Paula Bullock, a coordinator for the city's community courts, says that a small number of these men convince the community panel that they're not guilty; the majority pay a fine of up to $500 or agree to community service.

Of course, for many men, even being accused of solicitation is deeply shameful. Law professors say that whether or not the men are ultimately convicted doesn't matter. "The punishment is the arrest," Arenella says.

Because of the large numbers of Latino men arrested in prostitution stings, it might be possible to challenge the legality of the arrests in court, Adachi says. But that would require demonstrating discriminatory intent on the part of the police.

Ravella emphasized repeatedly that decoy officers interact with the men who approach or express interest in them — they don't choose men to target.

The city's sting operations are planned in response to neighborhood complaints about street-level prostitution, which currently focus on Polk Gulch and the Mission. "Even in the Upper Polk Street area, you still get Hispanic guys who are up there," Ravella says. "It's not that we're looking for them."

Miguel Robles, coordinator of the Latin American Alliance for Immigrant Rights, says some immigrants have no better option for sex than trying to buy it. Many are single men who work long hours and don't have girlfriends here. "They are coming from a different society," he says. "In [parts of] Mexico, prostitution is legal. If you go to Guatemala, it's legal."

He continues, "I think the difference is, most of the white people, they are looking for the prostitutes on the Internet; and Latinos, they don't have access to Craigslist." (Craiglist is, of course, only one of the websites offering advertisements for "adult services"; among the others is SF Weekly's Backpage.)

For Franklin Zimring, a professor at UC Berkeley's Boalt Hall School of Law who recently co-wrote a book on vice crimes, it's ultimately in this choice of street-level versus Internet enforcement that he sees the city's policing as discriminatory.

It's not the arrest procedures he finds problematic, but the policy choice to go after street prostitution — and, by extension, poor Latino immigrants — and let Internet prostitution become decriminalized in a de facto way. "Instead of arresting Mexican day laborers, we should give them netbooks," cheap laptops, he quips.

Last summer, the police did conduct a number of Internet stings. According to arrest records, these stings picked up only two men with Latino names in roughly a dozen arrests — a much smaller proportion than the 60 percent of street-level arrests.

The city's budget analyst recommended in his report that the police pursue more Internet stings in hopes of increasing the number of arrests and bringing the program back to firmer financial ground.

But there are both political and logistical issues with this approach. The Internet stings had very small returns, Ravella says; one August sting netted zero arrests. Even when men might respond to ads the police post on Craigslist, many of them simply fail to show up. San Francisco hotels were also unwilling to cooperate with the operations. As a result, Lieutenant Mary Petrie, who was then overseeing vice, put a halt to the web stings, Ravella says.

Targeting Craigslist also has no direct impact on neighborhoods, Ravella says. Given limited police resources, responding to neighborhood complaints comes first.

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