A surge in prostitution is infuriating residents of the lower Nob Hill neighborhood, as police are cracking down on visible offenders who they say come from as far as Contra Costa County to turn tricks.
Central Police Station, which covers lower Nob Hill, reported roughly 40 prostitution-related arrests from September to January — a number that police Capt. James Dudley says is high for an area that usually sees “a couple of arrests a month.” Within a 24-hour period on Jan. 24 alone, three prostitutes were arrested at Pine and Larkin streets and Pine and Hyde streets. Many bars and restaurants are in the area, and hotels including the Mark Hopkins, Fairmont and Ritz-Carlton, are atop Nob Hill.
In 2006, there were 1,476 prostitution arrests citywide, according to police Sgt. Neville Gittens. However, most of them were in the jurisdiction of the Northern and Mission police stations, he said.
The latest trends suggest prostitution may be creeping up Nob Hill from the Tenderloin, where it is generally more prevalent.
“We’ve had complaints from residents saying that the prostitutes are now going as highup as Clay and Sacramento streets,” Dudley said.
Prostitutes come to work in the neighborhood from about 6 p.m. to 8 a.m., and usually are not from The City, Dudley said — they come from the East Bay and North Bay. Although most of the women and transsexuals who are soliciting sex are between the ages of 18 to 20, one girl was just 14, Dudley said.
“They’ve migrated north a bit, and in a citywide sense we have to look at a supply and demand — obviously they are working in an area where they are getting a response,” Dudley said.
Robert Garcia, a lower Nob Hill resident, said he has called in several times to report the surge of prostitution in his neighborhood.
“What they’re doing is turning our neighborhood into a supermarket for sex and drugs. They don’t live here — the customers don’t live here. They come here to operate because everything is here — bars, clubs and hotels. There’s money here, and that’s why they want to work this area,” Garcia said, who added that he was stopped while walking by a motorist driving a sport utility vehicle weeks ago who asked him where the “girls” on Larkin Street are.
Carol Leigh, director of BAYSWAN, a sex worker advocacy network, said she’s heard firsthand about the influx of sex workers Nob Hill. “Basically, [prostitution] moves around. It is tourist season, it’s a nice season to visit San Francisco, and San Francisco is sin city — a place for sexual adventure,” Leigh said.
To address the problem, Dudley said he has been working with Capt. Kevin Dillon at Northern Station and the vice team, which handles narcotics and prostitution, to send more uniformed and plainclothes patrols to the area. He encourages residents to inform police when they see prostitutes in their area.
“People will tell you it’s the world’s oldest profession. We hear the community and want to address it. Sometimes the arrests lead us into pimping and drug sales cases that involve young women. The [prostitutes] need to be brought into the system so they can be helped and protected,” Dudley said.
The City’s prostitutes are getting younger and the pimps and johns are getting more knowledgeable about using technology to avoid the law, according to activists and officials working to reduce the sex trade.
“They have Web sites online where they exchange information about decoys, cars that are used in the operations and investigative techniques,” said Lt. Mary Petrie of the San Francisco Police Department’s vice crimes unit, which handles prostitution cases.
Hidden inside an unmarked building to protect their identity, members of the vice unit say the goal is threefold. They want to identify and rescue victims of human trafficking — many of them children — learn more about the evolving sex trade and crack down on the pimps and johns who fuel the industry.
The unit finds prostitution in all venues — the Internet, commercial and residential properties and on the street. Using stings to zero in on those involved in the sex trade, the unit checks Web sites and newspaper ads to find activity and finds pimps and johns with the help of decoys that go undercover and pose as sex workers.
One of the unit’s worst cases came in 2006, when a 13-year-old Sacramento girl working as a prostitute tried to run away from her pimp only to be savagely gang raped, beaten and sent back out onto the street, according to a vice team inspector who asked not to be named. When the unit identified her pimp as a parolee, he was promptly sent to state prison and the girl is now in a Utah rehabilitation facility.
“Not knowing the age [of the prostitute] is not a defense. They can have five fake IDs, and these men will still be charged. The district attorney is committed,” said Norma Hotaling, executive director and founder of SAGE, or Standing Against Global Exploitation.
The First Offender Prostitution Program, launched in March 1995, tackles the problem of johns who are fueling the demand — especially for young girls. In 2005, the program initiated 57 successful sting operations, and in 2006 there were 80. First-time offenders attend an educational class about the ramifications of prostitution on neighborhoods, the prostitutes themselves and their own health. They are also ordered to pay a sliding-scale fine of $1,000.
An officer who works as a decoy during stings, who asked not to be identified, said she has had a taste of what The City’s prostitutes face. For the last 20 years she’s worked in the unit, she’s heard of murders, slashings and beatings and was both robbed and kidnapped while working as a decoy.
“There is so much crime associated with prostitution. It’s not a victimless crime, it can’t be. It’s all about sex and money,” the decoy said.
Petrie, who once worked as a decoy herself, said neighborhood complaints have also been extremely helpful in apprehending offenders.
“I welcome people to call in and report these crimes, to find these children and help those that need help but are too afraid to ask for it,” Petrie said.
To report prostitution, call (415) 970-3070.