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The Electronic Pillory

Chicago's new anti-prostitution strategy is to punish men arrested for soliciting sex by posting their names and photos on the Web. Is it right? Does it work?

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"We're telling everyone who sets foot in Chicago," the mayor said last June. "If you solicit a prostitute, you will be arrested. And when you get arrested, people will know. Your spouse, children, friends, neighbors, and employers will know. . . . I don't have to tell you how fast information travels on the Internet."

The mayor was unveiling a Web site designed to humiliate johns, to put their jobs and family lives in jeopardy, and to demonstrate that the city was fighting to clean up neighborhoods afflicted by streetwalkers. The site would present the photographs, names, ages, and approximate addresses of men charged with soliciting prostitutes--a misdemeanor--as well as the date and place of their arrests. The information would be posted for 30 days.

Daley's new measure received a lot of attention. NPR, CNN, the Washington Post, and the Christian Science Monitor, among other news outlets, weighed in, their interest piqued because Chicago had upped the ante. Arrest information is a matter of public record, but the mayor was making this information more easily available to a far greater audience.

"Clearly it's punishment before judgment. How could it not be? It causes humiliation for the arrestee, his friends and family . . . and they're all being punished without any hint of due process," said attorney Jack King, public affairs director of the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers, in the National Law Journal. "The city of Chicago is opening itself up to a lot of potential liability."

So far, no lawsuits have been filed. But it's turned out that the site hasn't been humiliating sex tourists from parts elsewhere, the "everyone who sets foot in Chicago" whom the mayor seemed to be warning. It has put on display a lot of blacks and Hispanics from the city. Chicago has no data to show that the site--which was the mayor's initiative, not the police department's--has reduced prostitution. Computer-literate johns might actually find it helpful. Patterns revealed on the site indicate where prostitutes might be found on a given night and where the police are unlikely to appear.

The idea must have seemed firmly grounded in economic theory. Demand drives supply, and one way to decrease demand for any product or service is to raise costs to the consumer. In theory the Web site increases the social costs imposed on patrons of prostitutes.

What's more, the financial costs are also higher. In 2005, according to Chicago police spokeswoman Monique Bond, the city doubled the fee that johns pay to recover their cars. A man who loses his wheels to a police decoy unit can expect to pay $1,000 to the Department of Revenue to get them back, plus another $150 to Streets and Sanitation for towing charges. On top of that are storage fees, also paid to Streets and Sanitation, that have gone up to $10 a day for the first five days and $35 a day thereafter. According to Bond, the city collected $1.1 million in the first ten months of 2005 on 1,213 cars towed in prostitution and solicitation cases (266 went unclaimed).

But raising costs diminishes demand only if consumers know what the cost will be--in this case the cost to a john's family life, employment, and wallet. The campaign might gladden the hearts of outraged residents of communities where prostitutes operate, but to succeed it must reach a different demographic--the consumers who cruise those areas. Who are they?

We know a thing or two about men who get caught. A 2000 study by the National Institute of Justice looked at johns arrested in San Francisco, Portland, Santa Clara, and Las Vegas who'd subsequently attended intervention programs. (In this sample of 1,342 men, whites were in the majority.) They were, by and large, novices at the crime they'd committed. About a fifth of them claimed they'd never had sex with a prostitute before they haplessly propositioned a police decoy. Another fifth said they hadn't been with a prostitute in more than a year. Only a tenth said they used prostitutes more than once a month.

The study's author, University of Portland professor Martin Monto, concluded that "men arrested for trying to hire street prostitutes appear to be less experienced prostitution clients," and that more experienced clients are "better able to avoid arrest, either due to knowledge of police procedures, familiarity with the prostitutes themselves, or participation in off-street prostitution." Monto's research suggests that the recidivism rate for arrested johns is extremely low, and Chicago police vice section commander David Sobczyk thinks that's about right. Sobczyk, with seven years' experience in the vice section, can recall only one man who was arrested twice. "Typically, johns, if you run their criminal history, they don't have one," he says.

Who gets arrested in Chicago? In the last four months of 2005 the Web site, managed by the police bureau of information services, posted 524 images. According to Monique Bond, that's everybody except the minors. I put the men into demographic categories on the basis of their names, skin coloring, and addresses. More than 80 percent appeared to be African-American or Hispanic. Suburbanites and tourists accounted for less than one mug shot in five, and even in this group nearly three johns in five were black or Hispanic. The wealthy suburbs north of Evanston had not a single representative. Only 13 men came from out of state. Of the 425 men who gave addresses in the city and could be classified, 50 were white, 187 black, 186 Hispanic, and 2 Asian. Among the white city dwellers, eastern European names were common--Tomaz, Lukacz, Stanislaw, Jacek, Ziolo, Varimants, Dusko, Josip, Jovan. Other white ethnic groups were either rare or missing entirely.

Why do minorities dominate? Commander Sobczyk thinks the police department's antiviolence initiative is a factor. Each week the department's deployment operations center (DOC) predicts where violent crime is likely to take place in the city on the basis of the previous week's crime statistics. The vice section, along with other units, concentrates on those communities, which are almost always dominated by blacks and Hispanics. Statistics suggest that over the past several years this strategy has had a big impact in curbing violent crimes. Homicides, armed and unarmed robberies, robberies, burglaries, assaults, and thefts have all declined over the last six years.

But statistics can provide a distorted picture of prostitution. While it's nearly impossible for a homicide to escape the eye of the statistician, acts of prostitution can occur in huge uncounted numbers.

For example, at his press conference last June, the mayor said the police had arrested 3,204 prostitutes in 2004 and cited an estimate that 16,000 to 25,000 women are involved in prostitution in Chicago over the course of a year. Sobczyk says the vast majority of prostitute arrests take place on the street. For the sake of argument, let's be very conservative and say only half of those 3,204 women were arrested on the street and that each of them worked only 30 days in the year. According to DePaul law school professor Jody Raphael, who has been studying prostitution in Chicago since 1989, a woman working the street serves between 12 and 20 customers a night. Let's underestimate and say five. That's still 240,300 customers served in a year's worth of prostitution, an average of 658 a night. In the last four months of 2005, the greatest number of men arrested for solicitation on a single night was 26.

And for the next five nights, the Web site didn't show a single arrest.

The vice section's operations aren't completely determined by the deployment operations center. According to Sobczyk, the section also responds to specific requests for assistance from the city's 25 police districts. These can be generated by community complaints, district officers, or the police command; they're routed through headquarters, and each has a deadline attached to it. Sobczyk says that on a given night he has dozens of locations to choose from for vice operations. He sets priorities based on deadlines, the requirements imposed by DOC (the unit tries to fulfill six DOC assignments every week), and available staff. Arresting johns and prostitutes is by no means the section's only duty. Its officers investigate pimps, escort services, strip clubs, massage parlors, gambling offenses, licensing violations, the sale of liquor to minors, and human trafficking.

District tactical officers also run sting operations against prostitutes and johns. But they primarily focus on serious felonies, such as violent crimes and narcotics.

What all this means, and what the Web site reveals, is that on a given night the number of officers out on the streets trying to arrest johns might be zero. Consider last October. According to the display of faces on the Web site, on six days that month no arrests were made, on eight days one arrest was made, and on three days two arrests were made. That's a total of 14 arrests throughout Chicago during those 17 days. On the other 14 days of the month, 137 arrests were made. The pattern had been much the same in September (15 arrests in 15 days, 131 arrests in the other 15).

The Web site also reveals that on the majority of the nights when johns are arrested, they're arrested at one location. In other words, only one solicitation-arrest team is apparently working in the city. That's why the locations given on the Web site could help a customer new to the city to find a prostitute: they'd indicate where gaps in police coverage are probable (wherever the police were last night or two nights ago is usually a good bet) and which areas of the city have a relatively high number of stings. (Anyone shopping the west side in the Madison Street corridor is taking a chance--the odds in October were one in five that a decoy operation would be working there--and so is anyone frequenting Pulaski and nearby streets between Armitage and North.) The Web site even has a search-by-district function, which makes it easy to determine what districts are hot spots for arrests and which have had none.

The price for sex on the street usually runs from $10 to $50. (Ten bucks is the cost of a quarter ounce of crack, and Sobczyk says that if a drug-addicted prostitute has a portion of the $10 she'll sometimes work for the remainder.) Samir Goswami, associate director of policy for the Chicago Coalition for the Homeless and coordinator of the Prostitution Alternatives Roundtable, says that most men who buy sex at that price are poor. The middle and upper classes pay extra for the ambience and protection available indoors.

An escort service, for example, offers a customer far greater protection from arrest. It's possible the police are behind the advertisement in the newspaper, much less likely they're behind the ad in the yellow pages (where more than 40 firms advertise) or on one of the many Web pages offering the service. Arresting a woman working for an escort service isn't particularly difficult, though it's more labor-intensive than making a street arrest. Arresting a customer, however, requires either running a decoy operation or making a case against an existing service and taking over their phones. Both require dedicating scarce resources to the kind of prostitution that no one complains about at CAPS meetings. "So you have to put things on a scale," Sobczyk says. "Where do you want to invest your long-term assets?" Sobczyk has committed his to investigating human trafficking.

The racial makeup and suggested income level of arrested johns, their typical lack of a criminal record, and their low recidivism rate raise some basic questions about the mug shot campaign. Do these men deserve to be humiliated like this? And does the campaign to humiliate even reach them? And if it doesn't, what good is it?

I tried to contact 16 men whose photos had appeared on the Web site. Two agreed to be interviewed. One manages a small business; the other, an immigrant, works in construction. Both are white. Neither had a previous criminal record, and both said they hadn't been shopping for a prostitute and the first move was made by the decoy approaching the car. The arrest reports indicate that the manager offered $20 for oral sex and that the construction worker $40 for oral sex and intercourse. The business manager found out about the Web site when a friend who'd seen the photo called to offer sympathy. The construction worker didn't know his photo had been put on a Web site until I mentioned it, three weeks after his arrest.

When he unveiled the site, the mayor said it was a strategy recommended by the Chicago Intersystem Assessment Work Group, which had been studying the causes and effects of on-street prostitution for two years. The work group, brought together by the Chicago Coalition for the Homeless and the Mayor's Office on Domestic Violence, is an unusual task force made up of law enforcement, social workers, and former prostitutes.

But according to four members of the group I interviewed, the group soundly rejected a site depicting arrested johns. Goswami recalls that there was some support for a Web site presenting convicted ones, but the issue was left open for further research and discussion. Leslie Landis of the mayor's office for domestic violence insists that when Daley announced the Web site he simply said that the group had recommended attacking the demand side of the equation. But the press release issued for the occasion makes no distinction between the mayor's idea and the group's recommendations, clearly implying that the mayor was acting at their urging.

"I don't think any government should be in the business of shaming and humiliating people," says DePaul's Jody Raphael, one of those members. Samir Goswami also voted no. The Homeless Coalition policy analyst believes johns should be pursued more enthusiastically by the police, but he argues that the Web site inflicts cruel and unusual punishment and that there's no evidence that similar shaming tactics have had any effect on demand elsewhere.

Kansas City, Missouri, for example, ran a cable program commonly referred to as "John TV" from 1995 to 2002. According to Jon Trozzolo, who produced it, the show presented--to musical accompaniment--photos of arrested johns and their names and dates of birth. Compared to the Chicago Web site, where an arrested man is displayed to the world 24 hours a day for 30 days, "John TV" was just a quick glance--a five-minute show broadcast three times a week, each man shown six times, on a channel not many people watched, in part because it was offered by only one of the city's cable providers. But Kansas City vice detective Cliff Balicki says it's also true that few people wanted to tune in. It came to an end, Balicki says, because city lawyers became concerned about the legality of posting photos of unconvicted men. Balicki thinks it's possible the program deterred some men, but it "didn't decrease the numbers."

Akron, Ohio, has a johns Web site, but the city waits until the men are convicted before posting their photos. "Why bother if it is not a conviction anyways?" an Akron vice detective said in a recent phone interview. "Because if it's not a conviction, if the guy is just giving the girl a ride, then you've got a problem." The detective, who asked not to be named, thought his department's year-and-a-half-old site--which in early February carried three photos--was helping to reduce demand. But he went on to say: "If you're not married, I think for the most part these guys don't care. I've heard somebody saying, 'Hey, that's pretty cool, we can get our picture on there and everything else.' They don't care. It's only the people that are married, that have something to lose or don't want the neighbors to see. Some guy who is 22 years old and has been out drinking beer all night, he doesn't care. He's from Cleveland or he's not from Akron, nobody's going to see it anyway. So they have a good laugh. So it's who knows? Prostitution having been around so long, you can try to deter it, slow it down a little bit, but I don't know how much good any of it does."

Oakland, California, got a lot of coverage last year when it announced "Operation Shame"--a project run by city council president Ignacio De La Fuente. According to Oakland vice unit sergeant Mario Bermudez, the police department forwarded six photographs of convicted johns (two whites, two blacks, and two Hispanics) to De La Fuente's office, which posted blurred versions of four of them on billboards. "How much clearer do we have to make it?" they said. "Don't 'john' in Oakland." When the billboards went up, De La Fuente said the next step would be to put recognizable photos on them. But there was no next step. Sergeant Bermudez says the campaign lasted "about two weeks" and had no lasting impact.

The Chicago Police Department defends Mayor Daley's initiative. But then it would be impolitic not to.

"I think that the number of visits to that Web site is proof positive that in some way, shape, or form it is working," says Sobczyk, who points out that his unit has nothing to do with the site. "I think it is a highly valid part of law enforcement to dissuade criminal behavior, and I just really believe that this Web site is doing this."

The total number of page views sounds huge (1.1 million), but experienced Web users won't find it particularly impressive--the Reader, for example, gets three million page views a month. It's difficult to know what visitors are doing on the mayor's site. Are they checking to see if someone they know has been caught? Are they choosing a location for their evening's outing? Are they locals, residents of distant cities, curious foreigners? Some are attorneys fishing for business (a downtown firm pitched the construction worker mentioned above). They know a steady stream of men in legal hot water shows up on the Web site, even if many of those men don't know it themselves.

Monique Bond says the number of cars getting towed has increased and this proves the effectiveness of the overall strategy. But more cars being towed could mean that demand is up. Bond also cites positive feedback from communities seeing less prostitution. But one community's elation could be another's newfound despair. For example, as prostitution declined in 2002 in the Shakespeare District (which includes Wicker Park and Bucktown), it jumped in neighboring Grand Central. In 2001 Grand Central had been ranked ninth among the 25 police districts in overall arrests of prostitutes and johns. In 2003 it led the city in arrests of prostitutes and was second in arrests of johns and third in arrests of pimps. Last year it remained the hottest prostitution market in the city, at least as measured by arrests.

Bond also believes in the public relations value of the site. It's "a way for the police department to demonstrate that we are taking this seriously because the neighborhood ultimately is the victim of these crimes," she says.

Advocates for prostitutes argue that the city could show its concern extends to the women themselves by taking an evenhanded approach to law enforcement. Arrest statistics suggest that Chicago's making some progress. These statistics should be handled with caution: annual figures provided me by the police at different times in recent months haven't been consistent with each other or with the ones announced by the mayor at his press conference or with numbers recently given to CNN. But for what they're worth, the latest numbers tell us that in 2004 there were 4,740 arrests of women on various prostitution charges and 1,089 arrests of men for various customer-related offenses. That's a ratio of 4.35 women arrested for every man. And in 2005 it improved to 1.58 women arrested per man. (Arrests of women declined 31 percent and arrests of men rose 88 percent, as all prostitution-related arrests declined 23 percent.) That's a dramatic change, but it leaves Chicago still a far cry from San Francisco, which in 2004 arrested more than twice as many men as women.

According to Lieutenant Mary Petrie of the San Francisco vice unit, her unit's goal is equal enforcement. The difference in arrest rates, she says, in part reflects the fact that the women are savvier than the men. In San Francisco all arrests are tape-recorded. (Illinois law forbids this.) Experienced prostitutes, Petrie says, are slow to commit themselves to a criminal act when the language and actions of a customer suggest a tape could be running. "On the other hand," she says, "if we put an undercover female out, the men line up. We almost have to push them away. You can get eight to ten like boom, boom, boom, boom. Eight and ten in a night is easy.

"During the arrest, the men are treated respectfully. Their number came up. 'This is what you can do about it. Off you go. We are not going to tell anybody.' Why would we tell? Who would we tell? It's nobody's business. . . . We don't put it out there publicly in any way, shape, or form."

Asked why the San Francisco approach was so different from Chicago's, Petrie, a 30-year veteran of her department, quoted--without endorsement--a newspaper column published as Oakland's Operation Shame was getting under way. The gist of the column was that putting a man's face on a billboard would punish the offender, his wife, his children, his family, and his extended family.

Ex-prostitute Norma Hotaling, founder and executive director of the San Francisco-based SAGE Project, expressed a similar view last December when she discussed the Chicago Web site and other humiliation-based efforts on NPR's Talk of the Nation. SAGE (Standing Against Global Exploitation) provides trauma, mental-health, and substance-abuse services to survivors of prostitution, exploitation, and trafficking, and it's known for having established the nation's first education program for johns. Hotaling asked why a city would set out to create a caste of outcasts, why it would purposely try to destroy the "fragile personal relationships the men have going."

On the same program, Juhu Thukral, director of the Sex Workers Project at the Urban Justice Center in New York, called Chicago's Web site "incredibly cruel" and predicted that it wouldn't work. The way to reduce demand, she argued, is to decrease supply, which you do by providing more counseling and job training to sex workers.

The mayor has publicly acknowledged that "a caring society has a responsibility to help these women turn their lives around and to keep other young women from entering the profession." But there are no new city programs to show women that society cares. Women go to prison for prostitution (the first two prostitution charges are misdemeanors, the third a felony). Men suffer only public exposure and fines.

The police, meanwhile, are caught between hammer and anvil. Outraged neighbors demand more arrests, their anger typically directed at the women, who are more visible than their customers. But more arrests mean more prostitutes with felony records, and a felony rap sheet makes it harder for a woman to find any other kind of work. To not respond to those neighbors isn't the right answer. To fill police wagons with johns may change the ways of those johns, but their number appears endless. To allocate officers to cover all markets would require staffing that does not exist.

But what if it did exist? And what if every man and woman arrested was sent to jail?

"There is so much prostitution," says public defender Ron Szymanski, who has had hundreds of buyers and sellers as clients, "the jails would be huge. If we put everyone in there, we would all be broke."

John Conroy's e-mail address isjconroy@chicagoreader.com

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Jimmy Fishbein, AP Photo/Ben Margot; illustration/Paul Dolan.

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