About a year ago, it wasn't uncommon to see 10 prostitutes working the same corner every night in certain areas of South Los Angeles.
That's according to Sergeant Brent McGuyre, the officer in charge of LAPD's Southwest Division's Vice Unit. His team – which works almost entirely undercover – investigates all crimes related to sex, gambling and alcohol. In other words, his is the unit that helps keep tabs on the seedy underbelly of South L.A..
"Prostitution is called the world's oldest profession for a reason," said McGuyre. "If you talk to officers that headed Southwest 30 years ago, they'll say there were prostitutes back then in the Western Corridor and Figueroa Corridor."
Prostitution really "blew up" for Southwest, said McGuyre, after the Figueroa Corridor Project pushed the prostitution project northward into Southwest Division. That's when there were 10 girls working corners every night.
Senior Lead Officer Tracy Hauter is the liaison between the community and the division, and said the West Adams community in particular had had enough. The intersection at 29th Street and Western Avenue was one of the worst "tracks" – a place where a prostitute knows she can find a john and vice versa – and got so bad that it prompted one fed-up resident to start a Twitter account called STOP PROSTITUTION.
"They're fed up," she said. "They can't sleep at night because these girls are out screaming and yelling at cars and flagging them down, and the cars are screeching their brakes. The community is fed up. They're frustrated. They want to take their community back, and that's the end of it. They're tired of it."
Understandably so – McGuyre said that residents would find used condoms thrown in their lawn, and cars in front of their houses where prostitutes would be in the middle of having sex with johns, (their clients). Children would walk to school and see a prostitute in a G-string standing on the sidewalk first thing in the morning.
Profile of a prostitute and pimp
But even though the prostitutes are committing a crime, McGuyre also explained that there's been a recent "shift in thinking."
"We've started realizing that a lot of these girls have been getting younger and younger," he said. "There's been a shift on the law enforcement side so that now these prostitutes are looked at more as victims."
The sergeant said that 90 percent of the prostitutes he encounters in his work "have some sort of sexual or physical abuse from their childhood" – and that in fact that's how most of them get started.
"Typically, most of them start in prostitution when they're 12 or 14 or in their young teens," he continued. "A lot of them will be runaways who need to make money to find somewhere to stay or eat. Our major issue is the pimps that prey on the vulnerable women or young girls." He said the pimps will "swoop in" on runways they spot, kidnap them, rape them, and then force them into prostitution, and will often manage them by beating them or controlling their drugs, on which many prostitutes are dependent.
"There's no single profile [for pimps]," said McGuyre. "I've had pimps that are 50 years old and some that are 20. It's gotten a little bit away from the gangs. The gangs were [at one time] looking at that as a revenue stream," but have moved away from that as of late.
When he arrests a prostitute, McGuyre calls it a "rescue."
"We're still combating the mentality that prostitution is a victimless crime," he said. "Some people say, it's two consenting adults, so why do we care?" But he told the story of a 45-year-old prostitute he arrested who had bruises all over her legs and a burn from a crack pipe on her body.
"Because she was two minutes late getting back from a john," he said.
And the johns don't stop: McGuyre said there's an on-the-way-to-work crowd, a lunch-break crowd, a on-the-way-home-from-work crowd and then the late night crowd, which is when the most activity takes place. The johns are almost exclusively male in Southwest, and the prostitutes are almost all female, with a smattering of transgender sex workers on the streets as well.
"It's all day every day," he said. And even though he said nearly anybody can spot a prostitute, arresting one of them isn't that simple.
Arrest, rehabilitation and partnership
"That's one of the frustrations of the community," McGuyre said. "A 12-year-old knows what a prostitute looks like. But our Constitution requires us to ensure that we're respecting people's rights. So just because she may look like a prostitute, I can't just go up and arrest her and throw her in jail because we have to actually establish that she's out there for prostitution." He said prostitutes will often claim that they're just "going to the club."
"It's frustrating because everyone knows that she's a prostitute, but we can't just pull up and take her to jail," he said.
And jail time isn't the goal, added Hauter – rehabilitation is. (The 35 to 40 prostitutes picked up by Southwest every month only spend between a few hours to one day in jail anyway, McGuyre added.) West Adams, she said, has been pretty remarkable in the way it came together in order to clean up its prostitution problem. One of its goals is to hold an anti-prostitution march sometime in August, where resources will also be offered to help girls who want to stop working street corners. "We also want them to get help," she explained.
In addition to several city-funded prostitution diversion programs, McGuyre noted that there is what he called a "John School," where men who solicit prostitutes attend an 8-hour class that they pay for – not unlike traffic school – where former prostitutes come in to talk about their experiences of being raped and beaten. They might also be subject to graphic photos of sexually transmitted diseases at their worst.
"Johns that go to that class are rarely arrested again," said McGuyre.
"It all begins with partnership," said Hauter. "If people are experiencing a prostitution problem in their neighborhood, they need to partner up with their police departments like West Adams did."
Other parts of the division lining the Western Corridor have simply given up, she added, and Southwest doesn't hear from them anymore. McGuyre said because of the partnership between Hauter and West Adams, 29th and Western is virtually prostitute-free. Now he says 41st and Western is one of the worst areas for prostitution in his area.
West Adams has been pretty successful in taking West Adams back, Hauter added. "They've said to the prostitutes and pimps and johns, you're not welcome to come here and commit your sex acts," she said. "But mainly it's partnership. There are certain areas on Western we don't have that partnership with, so it's not going to happen for them. We need help from the community."
McGuyre said prostitution was certainly not a problem unique to West Adams or Southwest Division. "Everyone's got a track in their area," he said. "Everybody has issues with prostitution. And that's just what's on the street – I could pull up the Internet right now and show you 2,000 ads where you could order a girl like you'd order a pizza.
"We've seen very, very significant progress with West Adams within the past six months," he continued. "Obviously our challenge now is to sustain that. We don't want to shift our focus somewhere else and have it pop up again and be back where we were. Because that is typical."