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.

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