To reduce prostitution, Seattle gets experimental

By David Kroman
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Prostitution charges in Seattle fell from 199 in 2011 to 3 in 2012.

By David Kroman

In the north parking lot of the Aurora Avenue Home Depot, a woman loads her car with bags of mulch, two men fill a U-haul with landscaping equipment, and an undercover detective in a silver KIA informs a woman she’s under arrest for prostitution.

Much attention has been given to the city’s new approach of arresting and prosecuting men who buy sex, sending them to "john school" to teach them about the consequences of prostitution. But over the past four years, the Seattle Police Department and the City Attorney’s Office have also been experimenting with how best to handle the women who walk Aurora Avenue, otherwise know as The Track.

Between 2012 and 2013, prostitution charges in Seattle fell to close to zero. As part of an effort to use the court system to connect women with services, that number has crept up recently. Nevertheless, the "Buyer Beware" crackdown on johns pales in comparison to the astonishing drop in prostitution cases filed.

Not everyone sees that as a good thing.

Two detectives -- one in his forties and dressed in a tracksuit, the other in his sixties in a Duck Dynasty t-shirt -- drive back and forth between Aurora and the Seattle Police Department’s mobile precinct in the Home Depot lot. They pose as johns, soliciting sex from women along the highway. It’s 3 in the afternoon and the sun is shining. Each returns with a new woman about every 30 minutes.

The women (in some cases, girls), from about 16 to 50 years old, know they’ve been picked up by a police officer when they see Sgt. Tom Umporowicz at their passenger side window. “You’re under arrest,” he tells them. “But you don’t have to go to jail.”

In 2012, City Attorney Pete Holmes traveled to Boston to attend a conference on reducing demand for prostitution. The takeaway of the conference was, essentially, law enforcement and courts have it backward: Sex buyers are the perpetrators, and prostitutes are the victims. At the time, nationally, 60 percent of prosecutions in prostitution cases were against the sellers, versus 40 percent against the buyers. Holmes made it his goal to flip that statistic in the city. 

Last October, county and city attorneys, law enforcement and service providers unveiled "Buyer Beware", an initiative aimed at cracking down on those who patronize prostitutes (a practice officially rebranded by the Seattle City Council as “sexual exploitation”) by increasing the number of undercover stings, both in-person and online. The Seattle Times reported earlier this month that the program has shown promise as the number of johns arrested greatly outnumbers the women arrested.

It is still very early in the Buyer Beware program. But the actual number of johns arrested in 2014 is not stunning. Eighty-nine men were charged last year, a significant uptick from the 40 of 2013. But in 2011, that number was 116 and in 2010, about 150.

One number that is stunning, and has not been given much attention, is the decline in prosecutions of prostitutes. In 2011 alone, 199 cases were filed. In 2012 and 2013 combined, there were only eight.

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The number went up slightly to 43 in 2014. That fluctuation, says Heidi Sargent, assistant city prosecuting attorney with the City Attorney’s Office and liaison to the SPD’s Vice/High Risk Victims Unit, shows a city trying to find the best policy. “Looking at these numbers, you’re going to see an evolution of this policy,” says Sargent. “You’re going to be seeing immediate effects, but then you’re going to see nuances and changes over time.”

Undercover stings to arrest women and those to arrest johns are two very different operations. The stings against johns are lightning fast. On one particular sting, an undercover officer walks down Aurora, looking over her shoulder to make eye contact with drivers. Behind her, another hidden officer pretends to drink from a brown paper bag, a hoodie covering the radio in his ear. When a young man tries to buy sex from the officer, she gives a signal. In an instant, four black cars, lights flashing, surround the man and arrest him. In less than a minute, the cars are gone, a different undercover officer starts walking the street and they start all over.

On the other side, members of SPD’s Vice and High Risk Victims Unit call operations on women “recovering a victim” rather than “stings.” These operations have been evolving since 2012.

First, let’s take a step back. “From the mid-'90s and into the 2000s, we were booking everybody,” says Sgt. Umporowicz. “It used to be real cut and dry,” says undercover detective Harry James, who has been with SPD for 46 years and in the vice unit for 25. He says officers would drive up and down Aurora picking up women and taking them to jail.

“The old method guaranteed to keep the cycle going,” says Sargent. When most women leave jail, they are rarely better off then when they entered and tend to return to the street. “Arresting them was not keeping them off The Track,” says Umporowicz.

Arguably, the SPD was ahead of the City Attorney’s Office in its shift toward a victim-centered approach. Through a grant, SPD hired Stefanie Hanley as a full-time victims' advocate in 2009. Hanley is not a police officer. Her role more closely resembles that of a case manager. She makes contact with prostitutes (exclusively women, though that focus is not a matter of policy) through referrals from community organizations or law enforcement officers. “We offer them shelter if they need somewhere to stay,” she says. “We also connect them with community resources if they’re not aware of them."

Hanley works closely with organizations such as the Organization for Prostitute Survivors (OPS), Real Escape from the Sex Trade (REST) and the YWCA. When she makes contact with a woman, she calls around to see who has available beds. She also offers transportation, food, and clothing -- basics. She’s important enough to the department that, after the grant for her position ran out, the Seattle City Council approved money in the city budget to make Hanley a permanent employee with SPD.

The truly philosophical change, as King County’s Director of Probation Betty McNeely called it, came when Holmes returned from Boston. He announced in a 2012 newsletter that SPD and the City Attorney’s Office (CAO) were going to collaborate on a refocusing of efforts away from prostitutes and toward sex buyers and pimps. It was at this time the SPD’s Vice Unit added High Risk Victims onto its title.

Initially, this refocusing meant turning away from the women entirely. As a direct result of this policy change prostitution charges all but disappeared – only three in 2012 and five in 2013.

Some in the police department questioned whether this shift was in fact helpful to the women on the streets. “I know these girls like the back of my hand,” says detective James. “In order to understand what they need, you’ve got to be out there.” James says that, while the attorney’s office figured out its process, police management decided to stop even looking for prostitutes. “When the CAO stopped charging the women, our supervisors questioned why we'd go out and jeopardize our safety if nothing’s going to happen?”

Because, added James, "In undercover police work, anything that can go wrong, will."

Victims advocate Hanley continued her outreach efforts, but under then-Lieutenant Eric Sano, officers and prosecutors cast their gaze almost exclusively on busting johns and pimps and investigating commercial sexual abuse of minors.

Without an enforcement mechanism, however, taking a victim-first approach has proved difficult. “Initially the victims are not receptive to help,” says Hanley. “That could be for a lot of reasons: violence from their pimp, maybe they’re not in a place where they’re ready to make that step. ... A lot of it is resource-related. A lot of the time, the street is more safe than where they were before.”

“No one has arrested more girls than me,” says James. “I can assure you ... they need to be pulled along by the judicial system. They’ve got to be put before a judge and told, ‘jail or services.’”

By the end of 2013, Holmes’ policies had reversed course slightly, and swung back toward filing more charges – 43 in 2014. “In late 2013 we adjusted filing policies that specified limited circumstances that we would file charges,” says Sargent. “We recognized that being able to file a charge presents an opportunity for intervention.” Sgt. Umporowicz took the reins of the Vice and High Risk Victims Unit in 2014, and SPD and the CAO began building what is essentially a funnel to get women off the streets.

The Home Depot operation is the first line of interference. Umporowicz and Hanley coordinate with independent nonprofits like OPS, REST and the YWCA. On this particular day, Noel Gomez, founder of Seattle-based Organization for Prostitute Survivors and a “survivor” as former prostitutes are known, sits in a large SPD van with Hanley.

The arrested women are given the option of either going to jail or speaking with Hanley and Gomez. Not surprisingly, they all choose the latter. Some women walk in, grab a bag of chips and a business card and head back to Aurora. Other women spend up to an hour with Hanley and Gomez, learning about shelters and services. “We’ll see maybe 12 girls in a day,” says Gomez. “Usually two or three actually take us up on services.”

Unless they have a different charge – drugs or theft, for example – the women are almost always allowed to walk. “But we warn them,” says Umporowicz, “if we keep seeing you out here, we’re going to take you to jail.”

There is no threshold for how many times SPD has to spot a woman before she goes to jail. Umporowicz says his department uses its discretion. But when they are booked, the women become the charge of the City Attorney’s Office. The policy Holmes introduced in October 2013 says that all women will be offered the option of Community Court "unless extraordinary circumstances exist."

Community Court is an alternative to standard courts for all low-level offenses – theft, drug addiction, etc. Offenders are often given community service and classes in lieu of jail time. When arrested, the women will “meet with a probation officer and go through a pretty lengthy assessment to establish what their underlying needs are,” says Betty McNeely, King County Probation Director. “Based on that assessment, the judge decides the best course of action.” Usually, that includes attending a four-week sex industry worker’s class with an organization like OPS, completing an HIV test, establishing social service contacts and staying out of areas of prostitution like Aurora. If the women complete the checklist, the charges are usually dropped.

The point of all of this is to show women a way out of “the life,” a mission that everyone -- Umporowicz, Hanley, Sargent and every detective in the vice unit – seems to genuinely care about. “Imagine if this was your sister or your daughter,” says James. “People think we’re just cops. But we’re different than any other cops.”

Does any of this work? The reviews are mixed. According to SPD’s Hanley, “successes are hard to come by.” James echoes her point: “Is it working? I don’t think so.”

On the other hand, Gomez says she had to run to an emergency meeting on Aurora Avenue recently to discuss what to do with all the women trying to leave the life. "Our efforts are working so well that we have an influx of women trying to get out of the life," she says.

Still, some in the business community are skeptical. “If you get caught,” says Faye Garneau of the Aurora Avenue Merchants’ Association, “you just have to cry a little bit and then go through their program and then you’re back on the street.” According to Garneau (whom you may know from her successful efforts to switch Seattle to district-based City Council elections), Aurora businesses are not happy with how things have been going. “What we’re experiencing this year is the highest amount of prostitution and drug dealing we’ve ever seen.”

If this is indeed the case, there could be other factors at play. Seattle police are cracking down on “public disorder” downtown, for example, with its new 9.5 block strategy. As a result, some of that crime could be migrating north.

In September, Garneau sent a letter to Seattle council members asking they cut $1 million from the City Attorney’s Office and give it to SPD. “We need more cops,” Garneau told Crosscut. Why cut the City Attorney’s Office? Garneau simply doesn’t believe in what it’s doing. “I don’t have a lot of faith in the ability of society to save people from themselves. I’d like to think that what the office is doing is going to work, but I’m sorry to say, I don’t think it will.”

Garneau’s low expectations for the program mirror those of detective James, but they spin them differently. Despite his skepticism, “at least we’re trying,” says the detective. “If I save the life of even one girl, then it’s worth it.”

“The approach is that if it works on one person out of 10 then it’s worth it,” says Garneau. “But that means there’s nine others on the street. ... The CAO isn’t being harassed by those nine.”

Success of a service-based approach to prostitution is almost impossible to measure. Yes, Gomez says they're seeing more women wanting to get off the streets. But King County's Public Information Officer Dan Donohoe said they don't have statistics for how many women are currently jailed on prostitution charges. Outside the judicial system, the sex industry and the women involved are hidden, sometimes by choice, sometimes by force. (For example, all requests for interviews with prostitutes for this story were denied.) It is also fluid. Umporowicz says women are moved up and down the West Coast, which makes it difficult to establish relationships. "I saw women in Hawaii I recognized from Seattle," he says.

So will a victim-centered approach work? "It’s a very kind approach," says Garneau. "It’s an attempt to save people from their own destruction. Is it effective? That’s the $64 question."

Correction May 29th: A previous version of this article said Heidi Sargent was a criminal defense attorney. She is in fact an assistant city prosecutor.


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About the Authors & Contributors

David Kroman

David Kroman

David Kroman is formerly a reporter at Crosscut, where he covered city politics.