Armed with green forms listing license plate numbers, car models and driver descriptions, residents of the San Antonio neighborhood aim to do what billboards and tow trucks could not—reduce prostitution in their community.
The forms are the nucleus of the Dear John letter campaign, a community initiative supported by the City of Oakland, the Oakland Police Department and a variety of community organizations. The premise is simple: residents are taught to identify and report the license plate numbers and state of origin of cars driven by people who appear to be soliciting prostitutes, either in the San Antonio neighborhood or in other parts of the city where prostitution is an issue. This information is then sent anonymously to the OPD, whether directly to the police or with the help of community groups like the East Bay Asian Youth Center (EBAYC) or Oakland Community Organizations, a coalition of churches, schools and neighborhood groups that relies on religion as a community organizing strategy.
After checking that the car’s license plate matches the reported make and model, the OPD next sends an official form letter to the owner of the vehicle, informing the recipient that they were seen in an area of high prostitution and that such activity is illegal and unacceptable to local residents. “Prostitution is not a victimless crime and is associated with kidnapping, human trafficking and the sexual exploitation of children,” each letter states. “These are grave concerns to the City and city residents.”
Letters will be sent out within a week after verifying that the car matches an existing registration record, said Captain Johnny Davis, head of OPD’s criminal investigation division. “This is the first time something this innovative and groundbreaking has been done,” Davis said during a license plate reporting training session for San Antonio residents in late September. “I think we’re going to be a formidable force.”
The overarching plan, for Davis, is to eradicate prostitution from the city. “We know it’s a very lofty goal, but our efforts have to start somewhere,” he said.
Neighborhood organizers have a more localized view of the initiative. “The real issue here is that we don’t want it to be happening on these people’s front porches,” said Andy Nelson, one of the initiative coordinators through EBAYC. “We asked people, ‘What would make this neighborhood a better place to raise children?’ They said, ‘The biggest issue is that we have to deal with [prostitution] when we walk our children to and from school.’ Our accountability is to these people.”
Nelson said used condoms litter the ground in the San Antonio neighborhood, and prostitutes frequently run into businesses screaming for help before pimps come in to beat them. People in neighboring apartment buildings often walk outside their doors to see prostitutes engaging in sex with customers, he said.
Neighbors who are seen calling the police often get their cars vandalized, or face other kinds of retaliation from pimps and customers, Nelson said. Local businesses are sometimes robbed when pimps come into their stores looking for a prostitute. “It’s hell down here when this is out in full force,” Nelson said. “I don’t know if [Dear John] is going to work, but we’re just trying everything we can try.”
Law enforcement and support organizations for sexually exploited women and girls agree that combating prostitution in Oakland takes a three-pronged approach—one that tries to provide services to the young women involved in the sex trade while punishing their pimps and discouraging johns, or these who solicit prostitutes.
Support in the form of medical services, psychological counseling and sometimes foster care needs to be in place for young people caught up in the sex industry, said Casey Bates, deputy district attorney for Alameda County and head of the H.E.A.T. Watch, a unit run through the DA’s office that focuses on supporting sexually exploited young people and prosecuting those who financially benefit from prostituting children.
About 20 percent of prostitutes who are picked up by the OPD are under age 18, said Sgt. Holly Joshi, head of the OPD Vice and Child Exploitation unit, which is involved with the Dear John initiative because of the high numbers of children involved. The DA’s office is currently prosecuting 20 cases of child exploitation, Bates said.
The H.E.A.T. Watch operates Safety Net, is a partnership between the DA’s office, child exploitation advocacy organizations and other county services that together provide support, housing and counseling services for exploited children. Responses can range from mandating temporary stays in juvenile hall until a better home environment is found for the child, to providing victim witness protection for young people who testify against their traffickers, Bates said.
“We don’t see the sale of our children as a ‘victimless crime,’” he said, referring to a common description of prostitution. “We are mostly concerned with how to best provide service to these girls.”
Another strategy in fighting prostitution, Joshi said, is to target pimps because they lure in younger girls and abuse women. “‘The Track’ is 100-percent pimp controlled,” she said, referring to the stretch of International Boulevard known for prostitution. “It’s violent, and women and children are not allowed to work there and keep money for themselves.”
Police and the DA’s office agree that the final front to tackle is customer demand. By sending letters directly to johns, the program aims to decrease demand and discourage repeat customers, Davis said. “This is a business,” Davis said during the September training session. “If [prostitutes] don’t have any buyers for their product, they’ll go elsewhere.”
But sex workers say the problem is much deeper than that. “Street-based work is very distinct,” said Amy Golden, 44, a sex worker from Oakland and a member of the Sex Worker Outreach Project, which advocates reducing the violence and stigma associated with sex work. “It’s often women who have other issues, who have other needs to be dealt with—substance abuse, violence in the home. There’s not a lot of resources for these women.”
In fact, the decreased demand and forced relocation to another neighborhood might push these women to greater extremes to feed their families or sustain themselves, Golden said. “When you make someone even more desperate, it only undermines their own feelings of self-worth and self-respect,” she said. “If you don’t respect yourself, how can you respect the environment you’re in?”
This is not the first time a prostitution eradication program focusing on discouraging johns has been tried in Oakland. In 2005, city and police officials announced an initiative that would put the faces of those convicted of soliciting prostitutes on billboards and bus shelters throughout Oakland. The effort was intended to publicly shame johns who picked up prostitutes along International Boulevard. It also included the installation of surveillance cameras that would take footage of the street, to be turned over to the OPD and Alameda County prosecutors, according to a San Francisco Chronicle article. The intent was to help local businesses that were affected by the high rate of prostitution, residents said at the time.
But the program was controversial. Nola Brantley, cofounder and executive director of MISSSEY, an Oakland-based organization that provides services to sexually exploited youth, said the idea did not effectively target the john, but rather shamed the person’s entire family, who would then have to see their relative’s face on a public billboard. “I think the women and children in their lives have enough to deal with,” Brantley said. “You can’t use shame as a tactic—it doesn’t change behavior.”
The billboard project was a complement to a larger initiative called Operation Beat Feet, which debuted in 1997 and allowed police to tow cars belonging to suspected drug dealers, as well as those of customers who were soliciting prostitutes. Brantley said she often witnessed the car towing and it seemed that the program was having an effect on its intended audience. “They looked impacted,” she said. “There was no laughing or smiling.”
Operation Beat Feet faced down several civil rights lawsuits, but was ultimately discontinued in 2007 because of legal issues that included violations of state law, which prohibits the seizure of vehicles for prostitution and drug offenses without the driver being convicted in court or without there being proof beyond reasonable doubt that he is engaging in illegal activity.
Operation Beat Feet was also criticized because the towed cars were then sold with 50 percent of the profits allocated to OPD and the other half to the DA, according to an October 2002 article in the Hayward Daily Review.
Dear John is different than the previous programs because a letter does not have the possibility of legal ramifications, Davis said. It simply reminds the recipient of Oakland’s prostitution laws and encourages them to help keep the city safe.
Information about the john’s car, like the license plate number, will be kept in a database so these drivers will be on the OPD’s radar in case they are connected to other crimes, Davis said. But just because a letter is sent to the car owner’s house does not mean that they will be arrested, Davis said.
But as long as Fourth Amendment rights against unreasonable searches and seizures are not violated, there are few constitutional questions that could be raised by the Dear John program, said Robert Weisberg, a Stanford law professor who specializes in criminal justice. And as long as the police do not violate the Fourth Amendment, which prohibits unreasonable search and seizure, in their use of the collected automobile information, Weisberg said there should be no legal concerns attached to their keeping a database.
“It’s not an issue,” he said, even though he indicated that some people might find the idea discomfiting. “When things get Big-Brotherish and creepy, people think it’s a constitutional violation.”
The validity of information collected by neighbors is completely reliant on the honor system, Davis said. He added that there are no specific safeguards to prevent neighbors from reporting each other’s cars out of malice, other than the fact that no one will be arrested simply because they receive a letter. “We’re basing this on the honesty of the citizens,” he said. “They’re deemed honest unless proven otherwise.”
Residents who report false information about their neighbors could be sued for defamation, Weisberg said. But if the allegations—in this case, the solicitation of prostitutes—are actually true, the case would not hold up in court, he said. “You could be concerned about any of those things happening—defamation, invasion of privacy—but if the police get information without violating the Fourth Amendment and they receive information from private parties, then there are no constitutional issues at all,” he said.
No questions about the civil rights implications of the letters were raised at the training meeting in late September, and Nelson said the possibility for improvement in the neighborhood is his main concern. “I’m a member of the ACLU,” Nelson said. “Right now, I care about the people in this neighborhood.”
The Dear John program was originally suggested by an EBAYC intern, who had researched similar initiatives in Atlanta, Georgia and Baltimore, Maryland, Nelson said. What stood out about this initiative was the community involvement, Nelson said. “The real frustration is that when you call the police, they can’t come,” he said. “The usual methods don’t go anywhere. This puts more power in the hands of the community.”
The Atlanta program used radio, television and billboard ads to broadcast the Dear John letters to the entire city. The initiative was started by then-Mayor Shirley Franklin’s office, who read the letters aloud on-air, said Laura Lederer, former senior advisor on human trafficking in the U.S. State Department, and president of Global Centurion, an organization that monitors social marketing campaigns against prostitution, like the Dear John ad. “When you buy sex from our kids, you hurt them, you hurt our families and you hurt our city,” Franklin said in the television ad. “No more. Not in my city.”
There were no official evaluations taken of the program’s success, Lederer said in a phone interview on Tuesday, but she said she believes the campaign’s strength was its overarching focus. “Yes, the [ad] said ‘Dear John,’ and it was addressed to someone who was an exploiter, but it educated the public because everyone heard it,” she said. “It raised the consciousness of the whole city.”
With a shrinking police force and limited law enforcement resources, community monitoring of neighborhoods becomes more important in Oakland, Brantley said. “I like this because of the partnership with the community and the police,” she said. “There’s not enough officers to walk through the neighborhood—the community can walk all the time.”
At the September training session, about 50 attendees who spoke a variety of languages listened as Davis drilled them on how to tell that a customer is soliciting a prostitute. He told them to look for visual cues, like a driver who circles around the neighborhood several times but does not appear to be lost, or a woman who approaches a stopped car and leans in through the window before getting into a vehicle.
Since the program launched in late September, about seven letters have already been sent to car owners, Nelson said. He said he anticipates that number will increase as residents become more comfortable with the system.
One of the letters was sent to a man whose car had a child safety seat in the back, leading Nelson to believe that johns often lead double lives. “Some guys don’t care,” Nelson said. “But I think it’s going to matter for them to understand that someone’s watching them and that they’re not doing this in secret.”