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City, neighbors differ on prostitution strategies


Over 300 people packed the Vestal Elementary School auditorium last month for a neighborhood forum addressing the rise in prostitution and its attendant crime problems along Northeast 82nd Avenue. That wall of blue in the front includes Portland Police Chief Rosie Sizer.
At a demonstration held the Saturday following last month’s prostitution alternatives forum, over 100 neighbors and concerned citizens walked, carried signs and chanted along 82nd Avenue from Southeast Division to East Burnside Street.
The panel of experts convened for the forum held last month includes, from left, Keith Bickford of the Multnomah County Sheriff’s Office, James Pond of Transitions Global, Lila Lee of the Council for Prostitution Alternatives and Mike Crebs, East Precinct commander.
A forum on prostitution organized by the Save N.E. 82nd Avenue Coalition last month revealed different and contradictory attitudes and strategies toward prostitution there and elsewhere in east Portland.

The ad hoc group Montavilla in Action, which has organized foot patrols to combat prostitution activities, has been campaigning for the return of Prostitution-Free Zones. These allowed the police to declare anyone arrested or cited for prostitution activities to exclude such people from designated geographic areas for up to 90 days. It also allowed police to arrest them for trespass if they came into the area without legitimate reason. In the face of complaints that the police were using the law to harass minorities and the homeless and to deny people their civil rights without benefit of a trial, Mayor Tom Potter allowed the law to expire a year ago.

At a news conference in Montavilla last month, Potter conceded that in the last year prostitution-related complaints and calls to the police from this area have increased 300 percent. To deal with this, he proposed a massive increase in police missions and other activities, a strategy to have arrested prostitutes placed on probation with a condition that they pursue treatment and/or training on a path toward leaving this lifestyle and assistance to foot patrols and other citizen-based activities. He refused to consider reinstating the zones.

At the forum at Vestal School, attended by some 300 people, East Precinct Commander Mike Crebs said that with this initiative, “I’m confident we have the tools to do the job.” Montavilla in Action spokespeople said they were not convinced; in flyers and e-mails they questioned how long the police and community response could be sustained.

At the forum Commissioner Randy Leonard, a strong foe of the zones and proponent of the current approach, said to those present, “In my view, the zones don’t work. Sure, they work for you on 82nd Avenue, but does anyone think that because they can’t do this here these women will give up being prostitutes? They’ll just do it at 12th and Sandy, or at Third and Couch.” He cited the success of concentrated anti-prostitution activities downtown (which some observers credited with driving the trade east). Later, in the face of questions, he urged those present “to define what you’re fighting for, and once you achieve it, declare victory. The fight is not for Prostitution-Free Zones, it’s to stop prostitution.” He urged people to support the current approach “until it’s been proven not to work. If nothing we can do pleases you, it’s a human reaction to just tune you out.”

Lila Lee of the Council for Prostitution Alternatives and Jeri Williams of the Office of Neighborhood Involvement (and a former prostitute) complained that programs to help prostitutes leave the lifestyle have gradually disappeared. “If I talked to a prostitute on 82nd who wanted help, I would have nowhere to send her,” Williams said.

She movingly described her own life on the streets after leaving an abusive marriage, failing to find work and falling in with a gang. She was forced to give her pimp $300 in earnings (which meant having sexual relations with 15 johns) every night, and was beaten or locked in a room if she failed or misbehaved, she said. Her children were left in the care of a crack addict. Over the course of two years she had “12,000 chances to be found dead, contract AIDS or be arrested,” she said. “No normal person would get in a car and be intimate with a total stranger if they had alternatives.”

Other panel members suggested other strategies. Keith Bickford of the Multnomah County Sheriff’s Office is working with school districts to combat recruiting by pimps in high schools. Pimps describe these schools as a buffet because potential recruits are so plentiful and so easy to get to; If a pimp can’t make an approach alone, he’ll assign his lead girl to do it. They focus on a girl’s needs — desire for fun, relief from parental discipline, compliments to counter poor self-esteem — which they have an uncanny knack for sensing. “You can’t underestimate pimps,” Bickford said. “They’re the equals of any psychiatrist.” They’re also difficult to convict. The good news is that the county is seeking to have those they can catch prosecuted under federal anti-trafficking laws, which allow for longer prison sentences.

Phil Smith of Defenders, Inc., a national organization, goes after demand reduction, not only for prostitution but also pornography and sex-related businesses. He sees a direct connection between the two. “Sex is not a spectator sport,” he said. Having been aroused, a customer emerges onto the street, “sees something in a short skirt, and she’s next.” He and his cohorts picket such businesses and truck stops, trying to shame other men into altering their behavior. “We say, ‘Stop buying our girls, we won’t allow it,’” he said. “If there were no demand, there would be no victims.”

In a different direction, a group called 82ndCARES Coalition distributed leaflets at the forum that blamed prostitution on economic problems and social injustices that cause women to enter the profession. They attacked police anti-prostitution activities and appeared to favor legalization.

Panel members showed little enthusiasm for this approach. “Worldwide, legalization has a very poor track record” in terms of addressing the abuse of prostitutes, Lee said. She did favor concentrating law enforcement activities on johns rather than prostitutes.

In answer to a question, Leonard said he favored embarrassing johns by publishing their identities, or threatening to. (Crebs was leery of this approach.) Regarding adult businesses he said, “People have a constitutional right to sell pornography. They don’t have a right to use this to practice illegal activity. We can say to such businesses, ‘I have a building inspector and a fire inspector who would be very happy to meet you.’”

Dawn Rasmussen, the organizer of the forum, and others have said that prostitutes have taken to getting themselves dropped off and meeting johns in the blocks to the east and west of 82nd, thus avoiding the police and bringing the activity closer to homes. Rasmussen said she has avoided walking alone because as a woman she has become subject to sexual harassment and propositions.

Parkrose Neighborhood Association Chair Mary Walker has seen a similar phenomenon in her neighborhood and says she prefers to walk with her husband and big puppy. The activity on upper Sandy Boulevard isn’t as bad as it once was, she said, “but the girls are still there.”

Another Mid-county neighborhood leader, Bonny McKnight of Russell, offered those fighting the problem on 82nd her support. “We’re trying to get together as neighbors to fight a common problem,” she said at a meeting last month. “We support them, and hope they’ll support us.”

The forum drew about 300 people, as well as Multnomah County Commissioner Lisa Naito, Police Chief Rosie Sizer, and County District Attorney Michael Shrunk.

Rasmussen urged those present to take a multi-faceted approach, since no single strategy is likely to be sufficient. “We all need to be part of the solution,” she said.
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