Street Sex: Prostitution blooms on Avenue of Roses

See why the number of prostitutes working 82nd Avenue has skyrocketed. And, the tragic news is that even more of these “sex workers” aren’t even old enough to drive …

In outer East Portland, the prostitution trade isn’t plied in the dead of night. Working without fear, most prostitutes – like this woman, later arrested, and charged with soliciting prostitution – openly troll for customers in the light of day.

Story and photos by David F. Ashton
A couple of weeks ago, we told you how – even though it’s vastly understaffed – the Portland Police Bureau Drug & Vice Division (DVD) goes after the fifty or so local sex-for-sale pushers, commonly known as pimps.

We learned from Sgt. Doug Justice, the man who currently heads DVD, how their three-person “division” targets pimps who are promoting prostitution using underage girls.

“Even though we see it on the rise, we don’t have the manpower to go after street-level prostitution,” Justice added. “We leave that to the precincts.

Although a little blurry because this photo was taken at a great distance and through glass, the john looks jolly to be making a deal for a street-side sex act, just off SE 82nd Avenue of Roses. He didn’t look happy for long.

Local action heats up
On any afternoon or evening these days, along 82nd Avenue of Roses, it seems like we’re seeing more and more “girls on the stroll” – prostitutes, slowly walking along, or hanging out at bus stops as bus after bus rolls by.

“It’s not your imagination,” says Portland Police Bureau East Precinct Officer Rich Steinbronn who, along with Officer Michael Gallagher and a team of cops, is working a prostitution mission. “Prostitution has been steadily increasing – and with nice weather, it’s really taken off. Typically they really don’t like working in the rain. But if they’re forced to, they’ll work in any kind of weather.”

It isn’t necessarily the way these prostitutes wear their hair, dress, or are made up that makes them stand out as being different from female pedestrians – as we learn from Gallagher, as we watch the action on 82nd Avenue, while hidden in an undercover police vehicle. “Normally, women who walk along a street don’t keep looking around trying to make eye contact with passing cars,” he says.

After the undercover officer gives the signal, she walks away and the “custody team” of uniformed officers rush the man about to be charged with soliciting prostitution.

Prostitution reduces ‘quality of life’
As we wait for officers and decoys to get into position, the officers candidly admit they’ll never put an end to street prostitution. “Street prostitution ‘imports crime’ – it brings individuals into a neighborhood for the purpose of committing an illegal act,” Gallagher says.

“Unlike a ‘john’ (customer) who sets up a ‘date’ (sex-for-money meeting) from a CraigsList ad in a motel room or apartment,” Steinbronn adds, “these johns will drive the prostitute around the corner and into the neighborhoods alongside 82nd Avenue. They’ll do it in a church parking lot, in front of a school, just along a side street. They leave behind used condoms.”

Beyond negative impacts on neighborhoods, the officers say they’ve seen an alarming rise in the number young girls – as young as 14 years of age – being pressured into prostitution.

Instead of having the illicit sexual thrills he’d expected, this alleged john is getting another kind of excitement – being arrested, booked, and taken to jail. If his wife or girl friend is on the car title, she will have to be present when the car is released from seizure, and that might be a little exciting too.

Taking johns to jail
With all of the team in place, we watch as this “female decoy mission” or “john mission” swings back into action.

We watch a female Portland Police Officer, dressed in very ordinary, casual clothing – not a flashy, attention-getting costume – slowly walk up and down 82nd Avenue. Unlike some street prostitutes we’ve observed, these female undercover officers don’t shout, wave, or point at passing cars.

Within minutes, though, we see the driver of a car on 82nd Avenue slow down and make eye contact with the undercover officer. The driver turns in a side street and slowly drives past the undercover vehicle, and then turns into a restaurant parking lot. He motions for the officer to walk over to him.

It doesn’t take long for the john to propose a sex act for a specific amount of money. The undercover officer makes an innocuous gesture that signals the “Custody Team” of uniformed officers to swoop in and make the arrest.

Although another john tried to speed away after being busted by an undercover cop, the custody team closed in on him before he could escape the long arm of the law.

As fast as they can book them
“It’s amazing how many guys go cruising 82nd Avenue looking for a prostitute,” Steinbronn says. “We would arrest many more johns during each mission, except for the time it takes for our custody team to process and transport each of these alleged prostitution customers to the Justice Center, and book them into jail.”

Eager prostitutes don’t heed cops
We noticed two females, dressed in inappropriately short skirts and low-cut blouses, wearing a great deal of makeup, and strolling along in shoes with heels so high that most women would consider wearing them “cruel and unusual punishment”. A man, dressed in prototypical zoot suit attire, walks with them.

The group seems oblivious to the police cars roaring by with emergency lights flashing as another john gets busted.

Officer Gallagher says he recognizes the trio from past prostitution missions. He radios to a marked patrol car and asks officers to move them down the avenue so they can continue working their mission.

In all, their team arrested seven johns in one day, and eleven the next.

Asked why half of their missions are focused on arresting johns, Steinbronn explains, “Without the demand created by the johns, there wouldn’t be the supply of prostitutes working the street.”

The prostitution mission custody team swoops in to take another alleged prostitute into custody.

Picking up prostitutes
After two days of working ‘female decoy’ missions, the team switches to a ‘male decoy’ operation.

Here’s how it works: A male Portland Police Officer, driving an ordinary looking car, cruises along 82nd Avenue of Roses, and slows down for women who make eye contact or motion to them. “If the gal gets into the car, they usually make the deal for a sex act in exchange for money while they drive back into the neighborhood,” Gallagher tells us.

“The girls working along here know that we’re doing missions,” Steinbronn says. “Still, they’ll open a stranger’s car door and hop in. Sometimes they will ask the officer to expose himself, or ask him to touch them, to prove he’s not a cop, before they’re willing to make or accept the proposition. We don’t do that; if they insist, we have no choice but to let them go.”

But from our observation, there is no shortage of street-level prostitutes willing to gamble about being busted along the avenue. 13 prostitutes are arrested one day, another 12 the next – again, as rapidly as the custody team can book and transport them to jail.

From far north along 82nd Avenue, down to the Clackamas County line where this alleged prostitute is arrested, cops find no shortage of sex for sale on the street.

Crime of little consequence
Their missions are focused on curbing prostitution along 82nd Avenue this time, Steinbronn comments. “We found very few prostitutes working NE Sandy Boulevard, in the Parkrose area. They’ve really congregated along the length of 82nd Avenue, from Sandy south to Clackamas County.”

We ask the officers why they think prostitution along 82nd Avenue of Roses is flourishing.

Choosing their words carefully, the officers say that since certain Portland City ordinances were allowed to end, the number of prostitutes working has increased, because there is little consequence if they’re arrested.

“Let me illustrate it like this,” Steinbronn explains. “We arrested a gal yesterday. She was taken into custody and to jail. And, we arrested the same gal again today, still wearing the exact same clothes she had on yesterday.”

When a custody team officer asked why she was back out on the street again, hopping – unknowingly – into another undercover police car, Steinbronn says the cop reported she said, “I need to turn two tricks [sex acts] today. I don’t worry about you guys. I’ll be out [of jail] in a couple of hours.”

Prostitution-free Zones said to be successful
While reinstating Prostitution-free Zones won’t “cure” street-level prostitution, everyone with whom we’ve spoken in law enforcement says they were a good “tool” to reduce the prevalence of street-sex sales activity.

We’re told that since cities in the Seattle region have stepped up anti-prostitution enforcement and instituted ordinances, their rates of prostitution have dropped – and prostitutes themselves report that they’ve traveled south to work the Portland street, because the demand is high and the penalties are low.

Perhaps when the makeup of Portland’s city government changes in the new year, city leaders will once again revisit the Prostitution-free Zone ordinance. If they want to hear it, Portland’s own police officers will tell them that the zones really do help reduce the sex – openly for sale – on outer East Portland streets.

© 2008 David F. Ashton ~ East Portland News

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