Well-Intended Proposal to Shame “Johns” Using License Plate Readers Could End up Shaming Entire Communities in South L.A., Valley

A teen walks along Western Ave. toward the Bronco Motel with a john. A woman watching the scene with me said she believed the girl was underage. Sahra Sulaiman/Streetsblog L.A.
A teen walks along Western Ave. toward the Bronco Motel with a john. A woman watching the scene with me said she believed the girl was underage. Sahra Sulaiman/Streetsblog L.A.

In the excitement of seeing the City Council rescind its vote on an amended Mobility Plan 2035 and re-adopt the plan in its draft form just before Thanksgiving, I managed to miss another item on the Council agenda from Councilmember Nury Martinez: a motion requesting that “the City Attorney report on issuing John Letters to the registered owners of vehicles that are seen driving around in high-prostitution areas in the City.”

As I write this, I realize you might be asking yourself why an effort to shame vehicle owners by notifying them that their cars were spotted in areas where prostitution was rampant and that they might be at risk for contracting a sexually-transmitted disease is a livability issue.

Quite simply, prostitution has a significant impact on the walkability and livability of neighborhoods.

If you are a female of any age in an area where sex workers regularly walk the streets, then it is likely that you or someone you know has been solicited on more than one occasion. And I can assure you that it generally is a less-than-pleasant experience. When it happens to me, it might be guys rolling up and making obscene gestures in lieu of verbal requests. Or it might entail being followed. If it’s my lucky day, I get both. The seekers of my imagined services range from delivery guys, to guys walking or biking along the street, to professional-looking guys in expensive SUVs. I’ve even been harassed by a pimp who thought I was an undercover cop — an experience that was actually more unsettling than being solicited.

Not only am I solicited every single time I either walk or bike through a known “stroll,” I find some men there are more likely to assume I am a service-provider, regardless of whether they are interested in my presumed skills at the moment. My mere presence on the street is enough for some to link me to the trade.

I am old enough to handle it, gross as it may be. But if you imagine me instead as a middle-school-aged girl living in the area who gets harassed by johns or a young boy who sees women and girls treated this way every day, you begin to get a sense of how treacherous and unfriendly the public space can be.

Families that live in these often-densely residential areas find themselves regularly waking up to condoms littered in the street in front of their homes, having transactions go down within view or earshot at all hours of the day, having johns cruising back and forth in front of their homes, fearing retaliation from pimps for calling the police, having to wait for a bus on the same bench that a sex worker is sitting waiting for customers, and watching (often very young) women parade up and down their block.

These are all things that can keep residents from feeling free to walk up the block to frequent a local business, catch a bus, or take the kids back and forth to school. It can also hurt the larger sense of community in an area — neighbors and shop owners may be more likely to keep to themselves, not wanting to cause trouble with the pimps (or, in some cases, gangs) that control the trade in their neighborhood. And the level of neglect by the city needed to create the conditions in which prostitution can occur so openly means that prostitution isn’t happening in isolation. Illegal dumping, gang violence and the associated trauma, the selling of drugs and substance abuse, domestic violence, lack of access to a viable education or work opportunities, and disinvestment feed off each other and conspire to keep a community locked in an unhealthy holding pattern.

Dumping is a common occurrence along Western Ave. Sahra Sulaiman/Streetsblog L.A.
Dumping is a common occurrence along Western Ave. Sahra Sulaiman/Streetsblog L.A.

The situation is exacerbated by the fact that law enforcement’s hands are a bit tied when it comes to addressing the problem. Despite the fact that women are walking up and down major streets in various states of undress (it is unfortunately not that uncommon to see women with their bottoms partially or fully exposed in some areas of town), unless men are caught in the act of making a financial transaction, it can be hard to pin a solicitation charge on them. A man pulling over to engage a woman, or even going off with her for a short while, is generally not enough cause, legally speaking. It’s why law enforcement often relies on stings — that way they are more likely to secure convictions by getting discussion of the exchange of money on tape.

And it’s why the women are targeted for the lion’s share of arrests and citations for prostitution. They are the ones visibly posted like sentries in front of motels or beckoning to potential customers day after day on the same corners of the same streets.

But, as councilmember Martinez and others have recognized, penalizing the women is not doing much to address the underlying issues that allow prostitution to flourish in the first place or to punish the pimps the women are beholden to.

Many of the women involved in the trade are quite young or underage, and have a history of trauma. Coming from a violent home situation, experiencing sexual abuse, or spending time in the foster care system can leave young girls without support networks and at greater risk for being trafficked or simply “turned out” (pushed into the trade) by a boyfriend or family member. In areas where decades of disinvestment and disenfranchisement have meant that there are few resources young girls can turn to for help and few opportunities for employment, young women often don’t see themselves as having much choice.

So, the intention behind the proposed use of automatic license plate readers — the targeting of those who are taking advantage of some of the city’s most vulnerable women and girls in some of its more marginalized communities — is laudable. And it comes on the heels of sincere efforts to move towards longer-term solutions to the problem (treatment/john diversion programs, a reframing of the problem, an effort to find legal solutions, and a dedicated Valley task force). But, as good intentions are rarely enough, the proposal remains highly problematic, at the very least.

Screen Shot 2015-12-01 at 9.46.23 AM
Sample “Dear John” Letter. Click to enlarge or go to National Institute of Justice Study.

The worrisome language implying that anyone spotted “driving around in high-prostitution areas” could be hit with a “John” letter — a letter sent to the owner of the vehicle letting them know the car was in the vicinity of a known “stroll” — has the potential to brand already struggling communities as no-go zones and label area residents and workers at local businesses as solicitors. Worse still, some of these “strolls” can be quite long. On S. Figueroa Avenue in South L.A., the main stroll is in the 80s and 90s, but you can find some women a bit farther north or south. So, the designated “zone” could stretch more than 20 blocks. Similarly, along Western Avenue, prostitutes can be found from Slauson up through the thirties — a stretch of around 30 blocks.

Would we really brand entire swathes of communities and their residents this way?

It doesn’t make a lot of sense. Especially along corridors like Western, where groups like Community Coalition have worked tirelessly to transform the former stomping grounds of the Grim Sleeper serial killer into a stronger community from the ground up. By reclaiming the recreation center and park for families, pushing out nuisance liquor stores, rebranding South L.A. as a destination for music, art, and community via their annual PowerFest, and (along with Community Services Unlimited) providing the area with healthy food options after the Ralphs grocery closed, they and their community partners have helped residents along the corridor see their community as having positive potential. A blanket designation as a zone of prostitution, where shaming letters might arrive in residents’ mailboxes every time they were spotted passing through or conducting business in the area by an automatic reader, would represent a huge step backwards and a blow to the esteem of the community.

In a number of other cities, john letters have been sent after officers have specifically observed men appearing to solicit women or after arrests have been made. If that is the intention of councilmember Martinez’ motion, it would represent a more reasonable approach and would mean that it would not be necessary to use the automatic plate readers (controversial devices attached to patrol cars which capture thousands of license plates per minute and store license plate and GPS locations in a database; see concerns about the blanket-use of readers and the use of data here, here, here).

A targeted approach to ferreting out suspected johns would be labor-intensive. If that is what is being suggested, and we have the resources to park officers in an area to observe solicitation, then more might be gained by throwing those resources at things like the new Task Force so officers have a greater capacity to do foot patrols and community policing, instead. Prostitution is a trade of the shadows. Building relationships with business owners and residents and being a regular presence on the street would likely make it easier to reach the women who are being coerced or who might be hungry for alternatives to sex work. A more visible and community-oriented approach to law enforcement would likely also serve as a deterrent to johns while making the streets feel more accessible to residents. And, the knowledge gained regarding the street dynamics could be used to aid planners in getting maximum value out of any complementary solutions like pedestrian lighting.

It’s not clear to what extent the specifics of an approach using license plate readers or any alternatives were discussed as the motion made its way through the Council. Given that there is no estimate of what such a program might cost, it would appear that the discussion was limited (and a request for clarification about the specifics of the proposal from Martinez’ office is still pending). The motion was adopted with zero discussion last Wednesday, and passed through the Public Safety Committee the week prior with very little fanfare. It is now up to the City Attorney’s Office to study the viability of such a program as well as its parameters, legality, and cost.

  • MSJ sexy as ever

    Hi Sahra Sulaiman, thanks for this. I heard about this wondered how they were going to put into action. I live close to one of the corridors listed and how many times would my family members and I get these letters before legal action is taken? We have a high concentration of neighbors that use public transportation, shop, walk their kids to and from school, etc. How does one get more information on this? We should not be criminalized for accessing our own neighborhood. LAPD know where the prostitutes are and should just do stings instead and post those images on their FB or Twitter instead of casing the whole corridor.

  • RedViperofSilverLake

    This is tough because I naturally want to support any legislation that penalizes the exploitation of women (for the record, I consider survival sex i.e. engaging in sexual acts for the exchange of shelter, protection or drugs, included as a exploitation). Legislation to criminalize and shame johns in Sweden has been effective when combined with education such as mandatory ‘john schools’ but this isn’t that kind of comprehensive policy. While taking the focus off of criminalizing the person selling sex is right – because as you stated, many of them enter as victims of sex trafficking – I think that the LAPD, Sheriff and the Valley Task Force should better allocate their resources to identify and arrest pimps and controllers who make millions off the exploitation of vulnerable women.

  • normajeana

    Perhaps you ought to ask sex workers IF they feel they are exploited before you demand that the cops (who use the laws to extort us for sex, money and information) go out and “identify and arrest pimps and controllers.” The law states that ANYONE who lives off the earnings of a prostitute in full or in part is guilty of pimping. That means when we pay our rent, buy food, give money to our families- THEY can be charged with pimping. Cops threaten to do this and demand ‘free samples’ if we don’t want our loved ones charged with those felonies. As an international sex worker rights activist for nearly 34 years (since I left the LAPD in 1982), I think I know a little more about this issue than you do. The so called “swedish” model does NOT work, nor will there EVER be a decrease in the demand for our services, nor does arresting the non violent, non abusive clients, employers or associates HELP anyone. http://policeprostitutionandpolitics.com/index.php?option=com_content&view=article&id=137:cops-who-rape-prostitutes&catid=1:latest-news&Itemid=50

    How about when cops such as LAPD officers James Nichols and Luis Valenzuela RAPE US, they at least get fired- and hopefully ARRESTED and prosecuted. And when a sex worker is a victim of ANYTHING, we ought to be able to go to the police and not be afraid of being arrested or threatened with arrest if we report a crime. Decriminalize ALL consenting adult commercial sex, including the ancillary activities such as pandering and pimping, and leave in place all laws which apply to ANY worker in ANY job where force and coercion are involved.

  • normajeana

    Other countries where prostitution – including street work- is decriminalized, there are areas designated for street workers and their clients to meet. These areas are safe, because there is an incentive to provide security since the best way for everyone to earn a living is to draw in their clients who do not have to fear being robbed. When puritans and radical feminists get over their fear of sex outside of marriage, we will all be better off.

  • sahra

    I think both of you are raising important issues–the fact that we don’t have better protections for sex workers and that we treat it as a criminal enterprise leaves those workers vulnerable to abuse and exploitation. At the same time, there are women and girls that are truly exploited and vulnerable. It’s a really complicated issue as there are many different manifestations of sex work. I didn’t get into that in the article because that itself is its own issue. Even the kind of prostitution I’m addressing in the article is complicated…but there are some common threads that define what you are likely to see in the the areas addressed here: most get into it quite young because of circumstances of struggle, abuse, or sexual violence. Some are coerced by “boyfriends” that groom them for it with the intent of turning them out. Some are turned out by their own mothers/families. In some cases, prostitution is tied to addiction. The areas of South LA I am speaking about have experienced disinvestment and neglect and it has taken a toll on local families. They are also areas that were hit hard by the crack epidemic and incarceration and total disinterest on the part of law enforcement in offering residents any sort of protection or aid — when the Grim Sleeper was killing sex workers along Western, police classified some of the bodies as “non-human” victims… So while decriminalization might be one potential route, it doesn’t begin to address the conditions in these neighborhoods that make women and young girls vulnerable to exploitation in the first place. If they want to choose sex work on their own at some point, that’s their business. But if they have no other option or they’re underage or they’re being coerced or past victimizations have led them to it (or some combination of the above), then we’re dealing with something much deeper and it requires a sustained multi-faceted solution, not just a legal/law enforcement one.

  • normajeana

    I think that people do not realize the extent of harm that the laws prohibiting consensual commercial sex have on EVERYONE, including the real victims of sex trafficking.

    Yes, there are women and girls who are vulnerable to abuse and exploitation- INCLUDING those who get married and find themselves victims of domestic violence and abuse.

    Yet we don’t prohibit marriage and a victim of domestic violence MUST report the crime to the police BEFORE any action is taken, IF action is taken. And unfortunately for many women who are married to cops and are victims of domestic violence, they cannot report the crime against them by their law enforcement officer spouse – because it is not taken seriously until it becomes a murder suicide. Below is a link to a list of cops who beat or murdered a family member. The homicides are highlighted in yellow.

    http://policeprostitutionandpolitics.com/index.php?option=com_content&view=article&id=147:officer-involved-domestic-violence&catid=1:latest-news&Itemid=50

    And yes, we ought to worry about the children- especially the 96% of victims of child sexual exploitation whose predator is someone whom they know and trust- such as these law enforcement officers who were pillars of the community: (scroll down to see the list- it is horrifying) http://policeprostitutionandpolitics.com/index.php?option=com_content&view=article&id=100:pedophile-and-child-porn-cops-all-years&catid=1:latest-news&Itemid=50

    These are the men we put in charge of ‘rescuing’ exploited women and children.

  • normajeana

    The 2001 study on Commercial Sexual Exploitation of Children in the US, Canada and Mexico is often cited as evidence of the ‘average age of entry’ into prostitution. But what those people who cite it NEVER point out is what is on pages 92 and 93 of this report: https://web.archive.org/web/20131115060108/http://www.sp2.upenn.edu/restes/CSEC_Files/Complete_CSEC_020220.pdf The predators who are harming the children are MORE likely to be someone like a teacher, preacher, rabbi, imam, priest, parent, neighbor, babysitter, and cops- they constitute 96% of the predators while strangers clock in at less than 4%. What shall we do about THAT exploitation and why is it not important enough to the media to shout from the roof tops- exploitation is something that happens in good homes, with pillars of the community, in all white neighborhoods, etc. Let’s go after the bigger problem and perhaps the smaller one will follow.

  • normajeana

    As a journalist, you should be aware of this resource which has tons of information and links to original sources. “Operation Do the Math” http://policeprostitutionandpolitics.com/index.php?option=com_content&view=article&id=142:do-the-math&catid=36:stats-and-data&Itemid=61

    The statistics come from the FBI Bureau of Justice “Crime in the US” reports, which I researched back to 1981. The number of persons / minors arrested for prostitution has decreased steadily since a high in 1982 to a low in 2014. Inflated guesstimates of the numbers of victims have been bandied about by prostitution abolitionists with an incentive to fabricate those numbers.

  • normajeana

    The main point is to get law enforcement out of the ‘rescue’ industry and get to the source of the problem. If children are being sexually molested by someone whom they know (which is 96% of all cases of child sexual exploitation), but these cases are not being addressed when those crimes occur, then those children grow up believing that there is no justice. One of the reasons many minors run away from home is to get away from their abuser. Other studies show that many of the minors involved in prostitution do not have pimps and work with other minors to protect themselves from predators. I am more than happy to send you links to those studies if you want to contact me. I am not hard to find. Especially if you go to my policeprostitutionandpolitics.com website.

  • Chewie

    I definitely oppose sending out those letters to everyone who drives through an area known to be high in prostitution. That definitely works to stigmatize those areas. I also think that prostitution is morally wrong even if there is no coercion involved. Sex shouldn’t be reduced to a financial transaction. I really think that just inherently cheapens the human experience. If even this type of intimacy can be commodified, is there nothing that can’t be bought and sold, nothing sacred? Call me a prude or judgmental, I don’t care. Prostitution is not something that people do when they have anything resembling a decent amount of choice about how to make a living. This situation definitely speaks to the need for living wage jobs. Nobody should have to tolerate that in their neighborhood. I won’t call it “sex work” either. I’d say that’s giving it much more dignity than it deserves and a case of political correctness run amok.

  • neroden

    The evidence is that total legalization and decriminalization of prostitution makes it much, much easier for sex workers to report and prosecute assaults, coercion, etc. etc. Which remain illegal, of course.

    Even the bigoted behavior by the police and prosecutors is easier to deal with when prostitution is legal. Because the sex workers can get together, organize, and openly lobby for the police to do their jobs and take crimes against sex workers seriously. Right now, coming out and openly lobbying… is hard because the fear of *being arrested*. The best successes I’ve read about in the legal system have been in countries where it’s not legal to arrest women for selling sex (UK, Germany, Scandanavia), and the results are even better where it’s not legal to arrest their clients merely for buying sex. It brings it out of the shadows and makes it possible to get *testimony* regarding coercion, assaults, etc.

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