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

These complaints are real. From an apartment at California and Larkin streets, it's easy to hear the clack-clack of high heels on the sidewalk as young girls walk up and down, bare-armed despite the cold. In parts of the Mission, residents are often jolted awake by the sounds of prostitutes fighting outside. During one recent decoy operation in the Polk Street corridor, Tom Nguyen, the owner of a corner store, quietly brought over a bag of Red Bull drinks. He explained that he wanted to show his appreciation. By late last year, prostitution had become a real problem in his area, he said, but thanks to a major step-up in police enforcement, there are now many fewer prostitutes on his corner.

Zimring says many of the problems with prostitution stings have the same root cause: Enforcement policy is highly discretionary. Each city or town has its own standards. Because policies are often made within a police department chain of command, there's little opportunity for the public to review them or debate the principles behind them.

"The whole thing is completely secret," he says. "If you want to hassle either prostitutes or customers, you can do a lot of hassling without any checks and balances of judicial control."

"Who's up in arms about this?" he asks. "Nobody."

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