Tuesday, December 09, 2008

"Where did the prostitutes go, Mommy?"

By Heather J. Chin

Sunset Park – Prostitutes have long plied their trade along the Gowanus Expressway’s southern end in Brooklyn, coexisting quietly with their working class neighbors and largely ignored by police. But when residents began complaining in late September that men had begun soliciting sex from young girls and teachers at a nearby elementary school, the cops took fast action.

A series of morning crackdowns over three weeks resulted in 39 arrests along 56th and 57th streets between Second and Third Avenues, according to Deputy Inspector Jesus R. Pintos, of the 72nd Precinct. But the prostitution busts were only part of a larger effort that shows how local law enforcement can involve community organizations to find long-term solutions for neighborhood crimes.

The campaign began with getting the offenders off the streets. In what Inspector Pintos described as “precinct-based enforcement,” officers arrested 21 johns – the term used to describe the predominantly male clientele of prostitutes – and eight prostitutes. They also arrested nine others for related crimes of car theft (cars used by those arrested) and drug use or sales. Five vehicles were also confiscated at the scene.

Within days, the only signs that illegal activity had taken place were used condoms and other debris scattered on the sidewalk. The Brooklyn D.A.’s office lent several hands to deal with that. Kings County District Attorney Charles J. Hynes assigned individuals sentenced to community service hours in the neighborhood to assist the precinct in sidewalk clean-up.

To maintain the quality of life in the area and prevent the problem from simply relocating, police increased surveillance. First they installed Sky Watch – a surveillance tower that extends via mini-crane atop an NYPD car, traveling between high crime areas in the city – along the main intersection on Third Avenue and 56th Street during the two weeks following the arrests. Precinct officers were also assigned to conduct regular sweeps of the problem corridor, making arrests when necessary.

For residents and schoolchildren, the effect of the changes was immediate. “Where did the prostitutes go, Mommy?” one grade-schooler asked her mother on the way to school a week following the first arrests. The grateful mother shared the story with Deputy Inspector Pintos at the monthly Community Council meeting. Says Pintos, “We’re making headway, but we’ll continue to monitor the problem.”

Others are trying to help those arrested in the busts. The Red Hook Justice Center, in collaboration with the 72nd precinct, is offering first-time offenders an alternative to trials and jail. Instead they have to attend “Project Respect,” often called the Brooklyn John School. The six-year-old program puts offenders face-to-face with former prostitutes, videos of sexually abused children and images of the diseases inflicted on them.

EPIC (Ending Prostitution In our Communities) and “Saving Teens at Risk” are two programs targeting prostitutes above age 21 and younger girls, respectively. They offer educational and rehabilitative services to help these women find other options and to deal with the issues that originally caused them to turn to the streets. Kings County DA statistics note that 80 to 90 percent of the women prostituting themselves have been sexually abused. The U.S. Dept. of Justice says that girls enter prostitution at an average age of 13.

According to Gerianne Abriano, Bureau Chief at the Brooklyn D.A.’s office, “the vast majority [of offenders] that come to Red Hook go through these programs. Anyone with a prior record, we try to get them drug [or other] treatment. [And as for] the prostitutes, they tend to be the most accessible. We have good results with them.”

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