In the latest sign of shifting tactics to fight prostitution across Orange County, state data show local law enforcement agencies are arresting fewer women and more men involved in the sex trade.
Local officials say the trend likely marks the beginning of a sea change in how police approach prostitution. More agencies are coming to view prostitutes as victims of abuse rather than criminals, and are making greater efforts to connect them with counseling rather than jail cells.
In 2013, county agencies logged the fewest female arrests since 2001 and the most male arrests since 2006. Female arrests still eclipsed male arrests, but the gap between genders was the narrowest in a decade.
Instead of focusing enforcement on the predominantly female prostitutes, police are more often snapping handcuffs on the trade’s predominantly male johns and pimps, who in some circles are called “sex purchasers” and “human traffickers.”
“You will see a trend for more male arrests, because (officers are) going after those who put the girls on the streets,” Anaheim police spokesman Lt. Bob Dunn said. “A lot of what our focus is now countywide is getting to those individuals instead of trying to arrest our way out of this problem.”
Increasingly, police are adopting the idea that truly deterring prostitution – rather than pushing the activity into other communities or temporarily delaying it – requires cracking down on each facet of the trade’s economy: the sellers, the buyers and the organizers, or pimps.
Arrests have historically focused on prostitutes, in part because they’re easiest to catch. Advertising to buyers makes prostitutes more visible to law enforcement, and finding male officers to pose as undercover johns is easier than finding female officers in predominantly male police forces.
Between 2003 and 2012, Orange County law enforcement agencies logged about 10,500 prostitution arrests, with 76 percent of the cases involving women. In 2013, the latest year available, that figure fell to 64 percent, a significant decline after relatively little change the previous decade.
The shift brings Orange County closer in line with crime-fighting strategies backed by criminologists as well as by advocates for people in the sex trade. While local agencies have long focused on prostitutes, most researchers have argued that arresting prostitutes, johns and pimps is more effective in the long run.
Law enforcement agencies in San Diego and Riverside counties logged even steeper drops. Stephany Powell, executive director of the Mary Magdalene Project, a Van Nuys-based group that helps women leave prostitution, heralded the drop in female arrests in Orange County and elsewhere.
“I think what we’re seeing is the beginning of a paradigm shift,” Powell said. “It’s just the tip of the iceberg. I think what you’ll start to see is a steady decline.”
Santa Ana, Anaheim, Stanton and Garden Grove officers typically report most of Orange County’s prostitution arrests each year.
In 2013, each city except Stanton reported a narrower gap between women and men. Santa Ana police, for instance, logged about 500 female arrests in 2012 and about half that many in 2013.
Officials at the Orange County Sheriff’s Department, which patrols Stanton, said they weren’t sure what explained that city’s unusual statistics. But prostitution arrests can vary substantially year to year when agencies organize more stings targeting one aspect of the trade.
Lt. Jeff Hallock, a spokesman for the department, said that Stanton city officials have voiced concerns about prostitution in the past two years, and deputies have made more concerted efforts to address the issue.
Two leading voices in the push to focus more enforcement on men involved in the sex trade are Orange County District Attorney Tony Rackauckas and the Orange County Human Trafficking Task Force, which is currently led by Anaheim police.
In April 2013, Rackauckas created a unit to specifically target johns and pimps, and began briefing police officers on approaching women involved in the sex trade more like possible victims. Many women stay on the street under coercion or threat of violence, officials say, and some suffer from drug addiction.
“Most of times that we’ve seen, she’s a broken girl who’s been used and abused by men,” said Susan Kang Schroeder, Rackauckas’ chief of staff. “They’re being actively used and sold like commodities, and if we’re able to really go beyond going after the girl and really deal with the modern-day slavery against girls, then we may be able to eradicate this type of crime.”
Schroeder said the district attorney’s unit was prompted by the November 2012 passage of Proposition 35, which increased penalties for human trafficking and created more safeguards for victims. Prostitutes are supposed to be protected from prosecution if they are trafficking victims.
Rackauckas’ unit has obtained 62 felony convictions since its inception, Schroeder said, locking up many pimps for four to six years. In March last year, the office also obtained its first human trafficking conviction under Prop. 35, resulting in a man being sentenced to 15 years to life in prison.
Another advocate for arresting more men in the sex trade has been the Orange County Human Trafficking Task Force, a collection of local law enforcement agencies with federal funding support. Linh Tran, the task force’s administrator, said the county’s longtime focus on arresting women wasn’t effective. Police arrested hundreds annually but only got murky results.
Tran said it’s too soon to say whether the county’s new focus on men is a more effective crime deterrent, but at least officers are treating women with more dignity. Social workers connect with prostitutes to help them find housing, employment and drug addiction counseling.
Teens engaged in prostitution also no longer come out of the ordeal with an arrest record or conviction, making it easier for them to return to school, Tran said. The law now automatically treats minors as trafficking victims.
“Not only are we talking about a cultural mindset, but a lot of changes are happening at the same time,” Tran said. “The enforcement of this is relatively new. We can’t say that it’s solved the problem, but prior to enforcement of the law, there was no consideration of victims.”
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