PROSTITUTES: How to get them out and reclaim your neighborhood

by BJ Conrad

Editor’s Note: The issue of prostitution in Vallejo seemed to recede in the public discussion late last year as election season heated up and the city erected cameras in strategic locations to track both criminal activity and johns appearing at prostitution hotspots to solicit women for sex.

However, Mayor Davis has not reconvened the Prostitution Task Force since before the election, and in the intervening  months prostitutes have begun to reappear, sometimes in new locales, sometimes in the same old places.

In particular, they’ve been seen:

  • On Georgia Street at various locations between the freeway and the waterfront.
  • The parking lot of the Mi Pueblo Food Center on Solano Avenue, taking advantage of the hotels near the freeway
  • St. Vincent’s Hill, especially on Ohio Street between Branciforte and Marin.
  • In Southtown near the corner of Sonoma Boulevard and Magazine Street—unacceptably near Patterson Elementary School and the Norman C. King Center.

Vallejo’s citizens will once again have to rise up and demand the city’s attention to this problem. As the following piece makes clear, prostitution waxes and wanes as a policy concern for the city and the police, but it remains a constant problem for the people living and working in this city.

In 2001, just after buying 930 Marin Street and converting it into a usable gallery, I went by the property to check on it. I parked nearby, and suddenly the passenger door opened and a black woman slithered into the car. We appraised each other in astonishment and busted out laughing just as she was backing out. I wasn’t the client she was looking for.

As the months went on, this sort of thing stopped being funny. I started calling the police on the prostitutes. With Gene Hubert of Beat Health, we organized the neighborhood. That got the attention of Officer Vic Massenkoff.

Ed Boydsden, a landlord since way before I came into the picture, said the local street prostitutes were ruining his business.  He had to drop his rents to get tenants for his apartments. He told me stories about how the city had fought his efforts, subverted them. He said someone working for the city wanted his properties. He said the police would work on it just as long as it took to quiet the neighbors. Although street prostitution was deeply entrenched, no one in city administration really cared enough to create a policy with adequate follow-through to get it out of the neighborhood. I could hardly believe it when he said those things. I wondered if he wasn’t just spinning a good yarn.
After all, the police represented by Officer Vic Massenkoff were putting out a sterling effort. He had just run a sting using my units as the lookout site. He nailed a young guy on a violation. The guy lived in an apartment kitty-corner from 930 Marin and had taken a public leak. That was enough of an indecent exposure charge to earn the pat down that revealed 40-bagged grams of cocaine on him. Off to jail he went.

The neighbors, landlords, and representatives from St. Vincent Hill Association and from the Vallejo Artists’ Guild met at the station with Officer Massenkoff and the owner of the apartment building where the drug dealer lived. We explained the level of nuisance coming from those apartments and Officer Massenkopf informed the property owner that harboring a drug dealer could cost him a $25,000 fine, his property could be seized, or he could get jail time. He needed to get rid of both households in that duplex or the neighbors would sue him.

He did the evictions. I bought his derelict building, fixed it, and leased it to artists. The war was won. Between Vic’s good  policing, good landlording, activist neighbors, the Vallejo Artists Guild, and community support through Gene Hubert’s Beat Health program, the streetwalker and drug problems nearly disappeared, creating a bubble of peace.

Time passed. But the city’s lack of a consistent policy against street prostitution meant the neighborhood could not solidify its newly crime-free status.

One day I was outside drawing ideas for remodeling two other buildings in the little art enclave that was beginning to grow. A lightly clad woman sauntered by. Then another. And then, within the hour, eight flaunting prostitutes had burst my little bourgeois bubble of art, boutiques, and neighborhood events. I’d hope to emulate downtown Sonoma. Instead, the Marin Street Track was just like before.

A policeman in a patrol car told me, ”It’s been like this for decades. Nothing can be done.” But something had been done. Its benefits had been squandered.

I rolled up my sleeves and went back at it:

  1. 1. I returned to city staff armed with the “L” word: Liability. If they didn’t get rid of the ad hoc beer bar/public pisseur/pimp training facility/prostitute hangout,” otherwise known as the bus stop, they could be facing damage claims from commuters as well as neighbors. A day after that warning, a crane came and lifted it off the sidewalk and carried it away.
  2. I called the cops repeatedly, every time I saw criminal activity on the street.
  3. I scheduled a meeting with Lieutenant Reggie Garcia and 13 fellow neighborhood residents. Every woman in the neighborhood, from 13-60 years of age, had been propositioned. And now they were plotting a Faux Ho Decoy Patrol,  but were upstaged by Lieutenant Garcia’s john and prostitute sting that next weekend. It cleared the Track overnight.

The police also responded by instituting the bicycle patrol. It was the most effective and economical police response to the problem, working well to control prostitution and, as an added perk, providing the police with a great PR  opportunity.

It worked brilliantly for a few years, until someone failed to apply for the $100K grant in time to re-fund the unit.

Once again, something was done. And its benefits were squandered.

A slow, steady decline resulted from unfocused and intermittent policing without underlying policy. Two and a half  years later Marin Street looked like the Amsterdam Red Light District with a prostitute from every city, county, and state on every corner and a pimp or two nearby.  The lack of police response had the neighbors struggling simply to keep the used condoms off the sidewalks and out of their landscaping. It was the worst ever.

What could we do but once again go on the offensive? We called the police again and again, formed a neighborhood watch group with the help of Fighting Back Partnership, held neighborhood meetings and started neighborhood patrols, conducted informational protests before city council with poster images of the prostitutes—all of it amplified by a TV  and newspaper media blitz.

Finally the city heard the neighborhood. City Manager Phil Batchelor ordered police to respond to crime calls from the  neighborhood. Mayor Davis formed the Task Force Against Prostitution that developed a 16-point program to fight  prostitution. The neighborhood appointed five members to attend the sentencing hearing for the most egregious  prostitute and present a victim impact statement with signatures in open court. Local citizen Buck Kamphousen stepped up to the plate in a big way with his purchase of a half dozen Internet-controlled cameras at $22k each and had them installed them strategically.

After five years of discussions in Vallejo, Police Chief Nichelini requested and received approval from the California Attorney General to seize cars used in committing crimes. The new Solano County District Attorney, Donald du Bain, promised to convict and sentence prostitutes. This meaningful progress within the system had been huge.

Again something has been done. For the time being quiet reigns in our neighborhood. No more johns direct their gazes at every woman who braves Marin Street on foot. Pimps no longer proposition pubescent girls to hook for them in City Park, in the school play yards, or in the children’s own yards.

Will we let this new standard of normalcy languish as we have so many times before?

Here’s what we learned worked:

  1. Consistent, aggressive policing and working surveillance cameras dropped the number of prostitutes by 80%.
  2. Informed neighbors motivated the city and police to action.
  3. When the media kept the spotlight on the issue, good things happened.
  4. The most effective actions carried the threat of arrest, conviction, and incarceration. The stick is mightier than the carrot, at least in Vallejo.
  5. Victim impact statements told the court that prostitution has victims and it cannot be ignored; rather, strong sentencing will deter the crime.
  6. All these actions combined sent a message to the prostitutes: Vallejo was not the place to do business because it does have enforcement.

Not everything is rosy.

  1.  Some key elements of the 16-point program have not been implemented: In particular, there is still no aggressive targeting of johns and pimps. It will be difficult to truly rebuild our neighborhoods without using every tool available, but especially this one.
  2. We still lack an effective way to match offender faces to names. This limits our ability to be effective witnesses.
  3. Repeated requests from neighbors who want to step forward and be witnesses have largely gone unanswered by the police.
  4. Cooperation from the Vallejo Times Herald in publishing names and photos of offenders is still a dream. The paper claims it prints what the police report. The police say the paper does not fully utilize the reports they provide.

Things have improved but need to get even better. If we’re going to prevent another blasé backslide into the old routine, with criminal activity taking over our neighborhoods, we need to work together with the same purpose, focused on what works, with the cooperation of city officials, the courts and the police. It’s the only way we can truly eliminate crime and blight for the long term, not just for the time being.

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