Chicago Police Shift Prostituion Approach

May 26, 2010

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Lucretia Clay. (WBEZ/Natalie Moore)
The Chicago Police Department is shifting its approach toward prostitution crackdowns. Last month the department closed a motel for its role in facilitating prostitution, and it went after employees. Police are also partnering with service providers to help women get out of the illegal sex business. It's a strategy that looks for criminal activity beyond the women on the street corners. And the goal is to change the mindset of prostituted women as not just criminals, but victims, too.

Ernest Brown is the chief of organized crime for the Chicago Police Department. He explains the tactics around eliminating prostitution.

BROWN: The focus won't be on the people who are reaping the least amount of benefit from it. We're going to try to go after those folks who are reaping the maximum amount of benefit.

That means the focus isn't on the prostitutes.

BROWN: One of the more common colloquialisms is if you find out where the money is going, then you find out who the real criminals are.

Translation: the purveyors, panderers and pimps.

Super Motel on 66th and King Drive was known for prostitution. The owner even once told me what his customers did wasn't any of his business. Police collaborated with other CPD departments and the city's department of business affairs to shut down the Super Motel.

Brown says they were prepared to seize the hotel's assets.

BROWN: It's part of a larger strategy that where there are licensed business establishments that exacerbate or facilitate criminal activity, they need to be held accountable.

There's another piece Brown is pushing internally to make sure service providers help connect with the prostitutes during stings and arrests.

BROWN: Basically expose these women to alternatives because we ultimately feel they've been victimized at least once. You hear people talk all the time that prostitution is a victimless crime and it's far from victimless.

One new approach is embedding service providers with officers on prostitution investigations. Brown acknowledges that getting women to change their profession isn't easy and there hasn't been much success. Yet. But the seeds are planted, he says.

ambi: Belmont and Clark

It's a warm Friday night. Actually it's 1 a.m. Belmont and Clark is bustling. A couple of blue-jean clad service providers scope the intersection looking for prostitutes. They are armed with condoms and a nonjudgmental disposition.

ambi: You want some condoms?

Lucretia Clay and Paris Willis are former prostitutes. Now they are on the stroll trying to help women still in the game. They work for the nonprofit called Prologue. They hope to establish relationships with women and get them to seek help.

In 2008, there were 3,500 prostitution arrests in Chicago. Most of the prostitutes the duo approach on this evening are transgendered youth. The going rate for service is $10 and up.


Clay is pleased with the new Chicago police approach. Her experience with cops when she was working the streets was much different. She says she had been arrested more than 300 times over a 20-year stretch.

CLAY: It's one thing to arrest a person and belittle them and lower self esteem that's already low. That's what I went through. It's another thing to arrest somebody and offer them some genuine help. They wasn't doing that when I was out here. As many times as I got arrested, police never once asked me ‘why are you doing this and do you ever want to stop?' What I got from the police is ‘Who do you want me to call when I find your body in the alley?' That's the door for me to act crazy with you and you to act crazy with me.

Law enforcement around the country tends to arrest and re-arrest women says Lynne Johnson. Johnson does advocacy work for the Chicago Alliance Against Sexual Exploitation, or CAASE.

JOHNSON: To arrest and re-arrest women with a rap sheet of over 50 pages long is a waste of our public resources. And it's a response that encourages recidivism. They'll be taken off the street and the pimp who's pimping them will simply bring another women or girl out onto that street.

Johnson and other advocates praise Chief Brown's recent efforts. But Johnson says Illinois needs facilities that deal exclusively with prostituted women – issues around homelessness and substance abuse and stigmatization. Last fall CAASE and other advocacy groups launched the “End Demand” campaign around sex trafficking. The campaign includes working on putting a new state law on the books that would not criminalize juvenile prostitutes.

That's a measure Jack Blakey is working on, too, for the Illinois General Assembly. He's chief of the special prosecutions bureau for the Cook County State's Attorney. Blakey's office uses service providers as well. He runs into the same problems that Chief Brown mentions.

BLAKEY: Sometimes when we have our embedded service providers on location it becomes a referral. There's a conversation, there's a card, information, a seed that's planted for later. And sometimes the first contact's not sufficient and it takes awhile.

That doesn't deter the outreach workers.

Back on Belmont and Clark, before Lucretia Clay and Paris Willis hit the streets on that Friday night, they sat in a Winnebago in a bank parking lot. They packed safety kits to distribute. They say the police used to harass outreach workers on the street. Not anymore.

Paris Willis:

WILLIS: A lot of these sex workers that come up here, they come up here on a hope and a prayer. That they gonna make some money. They don't have any place to go so they use selling sex as a means of survival. They do it because they need to get high. It's various reasons why sex workers do what they do. Our big job is to keep them safe.

They may assess 60 to 80 prostitutes a year. Sometimes only one may get her life back on track. Clay and Willis say that's okay.

In fact, they will be back out here on the next night.