I spent some time Monday night with members of the Old Goucher Community Association, who are fed up with transgender prostitutes that proliferate Calvert and St. Paul streets between East 20 and 25 streets.
The met with Northern District Police Officer Douglas C. Gibson Jr. who explained the difficulties of cleaning the area up, and ones I'll explore in a column this week. One woman, a public health nurse who moved here from Portland, wrote an e-mail saying she was tired of finding used condoms out back and "of being picked up on when ever I go out and sit on the steps on St. Paul -- the first time a guy asked me if I was working I didn't even know what he was asking -- I said -- 'Yeah, I work, I'm a nurse.'"
Residents asked the officer if the city could establish a Prostitution Free Zone, as allowed for under the city charter. But Gibson said those laws, good-intentioned as they may have been when formed, don't work that well. As with Drug-Free Zones, police can't simply sweep the area of loiterers; they have to prove the people were loitering for the purpose of selling drugs or engaging in prostitution. And if they can prove that, then they can charge with with the underlying offenses.
I walked the streets with a community association member for a bit last night and two prostitutes passed my car as soon as I parked on East 21st Street. I saw several, including one man wearing a thong and little else standing on a corner next to Lovely Lane United Methodist Church (where hours later the community meeting had been held).
None of the women "working" were loud or obnoxious, though several were talking on their cell phones. I saw no pickups, but I was only out for about 20 minutes. Residents describe loud arguments, shouting and a coordinated effort by the workers to vaporize as soon as a police car drives by. One police commander told me the area is noted on Craigslist as the place to come for a male prostitute dressed as a woman.
Other neighborhoods have tried various ways eradicate the problem -- Curitis Bay and Brooklyn want police to send letters to men who circle blocks looking for women to scare them away; Gibson said the Northern District major and deputy major hit the streets recently and stopped four cars, but one driver was single ("a letter wouldn't do much good") and two others were from out of state and in rental cars, so the letter would go to the car company, not their homes.
In Pigtown, residents hit the streets armed with video cameras and photograph women and men, and their license plates, and post the information on the Internet. But I just noticed today that Baltimore John Watch has been removed, so that might not even be up and running anymore.
Residents also demanded that officers who respond to their calls get out of their cars instead of just driving by; Gibson said it's hard to move people who are just standing around, as they aren't breaking any laws. To get a good arrest takes a sting operation in which cops pose as johns and get the workers to admit they are exchanging sex for money. It's takes a lot of work and time, and even then the workers escape with probation.
Here are some e-mails from concerned residents:
My husband and I have also noticed the recent order-of-magnitude increase in the activities in and around the vicinity of East 21st Street and its intersections with both North Charles and Saint Paul Streets. The actions of these people are quite simply, astonishingly brazen and intolerably disruptive to the peace and quiet, and no less important, the feeling of our safety in our neighborhood. Like you, we have called 911 numerous times to no apparent effect, and like you, have come to suspect that the "lookout" for the group must be monitoring some sort of police scanner, as they all seem to scatter or pile into a vehicle and depart the scene just before the police arrive, IF they arrive at all.
Too many times we have had to make repeat calls three and sometimes as many as four times before a squad car ever drives by; and that's EXACTLY what they do: drive by. Even if (some of) the scantily and provocatively clad people are still there, we have NEVER seen an officer stop the car and get out and say anything to them. A perfunctory drive-by without some sort of challenge is a completely toothless and useless threat, and they know it.
As soon as it can be arranged, we plan to have a special called community meeting with representatives of the Police Department, Mayor's Office, surrounding community associations and as many members of the media as we can interest in the situation, to try and bring some sort of effective action to bear. The alternative, as you so correctly point out, is to protest with our feet and our tax dollars. I know the next time our property is assessed, we will be appealing the assessment on the basis of living in an area where known prostitution activity takes place on a daily/nightly basis. Lower assessments mean less money for the City. It's pretty much a no-brainer. We are all living in the city, perhaps for different reasons, but none of them include daily confrontation with, intimidation by, and lifestyle disturbances from prostitutes of indeterminate gender that is now our continuous lot.
Among other possible remedies, we intend to ask for two immediate measures to help combat this blight. First, we need a set of the generator powered emergency work lights to be stationed in the middle of the unit block of East 21st Street, directed both East and West to cover the primary areas where this activity is occurring. This will help in at least two ways: It should discourage the overt soliciting behavior in the vicinity and it will almost certainly discourage the potential customers from stopping to initiate transactions. These lights have been effective in various areas of the city where unruly activities are a problem.
Secondly, we intend to respectively insist that the Police Commissioner invoke Police Ordinance 19, Subtitle 27, Paragraphs 27-1 through 27-16 to establish a maximum permissible sized "Prostitution Free Zone" in and around this area of the Old Goucher neighborhood. The Ordinance implies, and we will expect enhanced Police enforcement of the City's existing anti-prostitution ordinances within this area for the maximum permissible time.
In the meantime, it will fall to everyone in the community who feels affected by this problem and wants to see it change, to begin collecting and recording incidents and anecdotes that they observe, including dates, times and locations. These data will be absolutely essential in convincing the Police Commissioner of a) the unarguable need for the Prostitution Free Zone and b) the area of coverage that it must encompass.
The days are gone when even supervisors in the Police Department can boast publically, apparently with great satisfaction, that they have been able to drive the prostritutes northward across North Avenue from the Mount Vernon community into Charles Village and Old Goucher. "We're as mad as Hell, and we're not going to take it anymore."
And from the nurse:
I realize it's been quite a while since I've written- the problem however for the prostitution at 21st and Saint Paul Streets continues to escalate. When I leave my house, I find several "ladies" in the street, often standing right in front of my car.
This morning, as I was leaving for work, one such was standing a foot or two in front of my car and antagonistically watched me as I entered same and as I attempted to leave, just stood in front of the car. I had to press forward slowly and she finally let me pass. This is unacceptable! I should not have to deal with this on a daily basis, which I have been for quite some time now, as I am sure you continue to be aware.
While I recognize that it is difficult to catch these persons in the act, an it is not illegal to stand on a corner, to talk to someone in an automobile etc, I should not feel intimidated when I leave, have to force my way through them just to go to work. It is even more frustrating when I note that while my property taxes have increase 400%, we can't eliminate this scourge from our neighborhood. I know of at least two families who have already moved or are contemplating moving just on the 2100 block of Saint Paul because of the either real or perceived dangerous nature of our neighborhood.
What can be done? Or will I need to be one of those abandoning the neighborhood?