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Ravella emphasized repeatedly that decoy officers interact with the men who approach or express interest in them — they don't choose men to target.
The city's sting operations are planned in response to neighborhood complaints about street-level prostitution, which currently focus on Polk Gulch and the Mission. "Even in the Upper Polk Street area, you still get Hispanic guys who are up there," Ravella says. "It's not that we're looking for them."
Miguel Robles, coordinator of the Latin American Alliance for Immigrant Rights, says some immigrants have no better option for sex than trying to buy it. Many are single men who work long hours and don't have girlfriends here. "They are coming from a different society," he says. "In [parts of] Mexico, prostitution is legal. If you go to Guatemala, it's legal."
He continues, "I think the difference is, most of the white people, they are looking for the prostitutes on the Internet; and Latinos, they don't have access to Craigslist." (Craiglist is, of course, only one of the websites offering advertisements for "adult services"; among the others is SF Weekly's Backpage.)
For Franklin Zimring, a professor at UC Berkeley's Boalt Hall School of Law who recently co-wrote a book on vice crimes, it's ultimately in this choice of street-level versus Internet enforcement that he sees the city's policing as discriminatory.
It's not the arrest procedures he finds problematic, but the policy choice to go after street prostitution — and, by extension, poor Latino immigrants — and let Internet prostitution become decriminalized in a de facto way. "Instead of arresting Mexican day laborers, we should give them netbooks," cheap laptops, he quips.
Last summer, the police did conduct a number of Internet stings. According to arrest records, these stings picked up only two men with Latino names in roughly a dozen arrests — a much smaller proportion than the 60 percent of street-level arrests.
The city's budget analyst recommended in his report that the police pursue more Internet stings in hopes of increasing the number of arrests and bringing the program back to firmer financial ground.
But there are both political and logistical issues with this approach. The Internet stings had very small returns, Ravella says; one August sting netted zero arrests. Even when men might respond to ads the police post on Craigslist, many of them simply fail to show up. San Francisco hotels were also unwilling to cooperate with the operations. As a result, Lieutenant Mary Petrie, who was then overseeing vice, put a halt to the web stings, Ravella says.
Targeting Craigslist also has no direct impact on neighborhoods, Ravella says. Given limited police resources, responding to neighborhood complaints comes first.
These complaints are real. From an apartment at California and Larkin streets, it's easy to hear the clack-clack of high heels on the sidewalk as young girls walk up and down, bare-armed despite the cold. In parts of the Mission, residents are often jolted awake by the sounds of prostitutes fighting outside. During one recent decoy operation in the Polk Street corridor, Tom Nguyen, the owner of a corner store, quietly brought over a bag of Red Bull drinks. He explained that he wanted to show his appreciation. By late last year, prostitution had become a real problem in his area, he said, but thanks to a major step-up in police enforcement, there are now many fewer prostitutes on his corner.
Zimring says many of the problems with prostitution stings have the same root cause: Enforcement policy is highly discretionary. Each city or town has its own standards. Because policies are often made within a police department chain of command, there's little opportunity for the public to review them or debate the principles behind them.
"The whole thing is completely secret," he says. "If you want to hassle either prostitutes or customers, you can do a lot of hassling without any checks and balances of judicial control."
"Who's up in arms about this?" he asks. "Nobody."