OAKLAND -- Men who drive into East Oakland hot spots looking to hire a sex worker could have their vehicles seized by police but also may find a letter at home with a warning about the dangers of prostitution.
The "Dear John" program could be rolled out as soon as mid-July, when the City Attorney's Office is finished fine-tuning the letter, said Andy Nelson, the deputy director for organizing and public policy with the East Bay Asian Youth Center, an East Oakland nonprofit organization that is working with the city and the police department on the program. "(The letter) is to reduce the demand for prostitution,'' Nelson said. "The letter would not make any accusations of a crime; it would only say someone spotted this car where there is a lot of prostitution. It would point out the dangers and what it does to the girls."
The program is in addition to a new city ordinance that allows police to seize vehicles or arrest those who solicit prostitution.
Some details about the program still need to be worked out, but people who live in the hot spot neighborhoods are likely to be trained and asked to write down license plates, locations, times and dates of men -- or women -- who may be patronizing sex workers. Under the city ordinance, police can seize vehicles used to engage in an act of prostitution or illegal dumping. Ultimately, it will be the police department generating and sending the letters, police said.
"We are going to make sure we train people so they are able to recognize the traditional behavior: circling the block, slowing down when (they) drive by a prostitute, stopping to talk to a prostitute," said Nelson. "This is a huge problem "... some (people's) daughters get mistaken for prostitutes."
Police said information about people who might be in the area to hire a prostitute will be treated like other crime tips.
"We receive tips on almost every type of crime under the sun, and it's important to realize there is training and legal standards in place that require a certain level of suspicion or proof before law enforcement gets involved or arrests take place,'' said Sgt. Chris Bolton. "Those are the types of things we need to take into account."
Bolton said the community recognizes prostitution as a "persistent and invasive problem, and they want solutions.
"So, we are working with them closely, taking their recommendations and ideas and examining several different potential tools,'' Bolton said.
Last fall, the East Bay Asian Youth center surveyed 500 people who live below Interstate 580 between Second and 23rd avenues, the majority near International Boulevard, about how to make their neighborhoods safer for raising children.
"(Curbing prostitution) was in the top three,'' said Nelson. "Jobs and job training for youth and young adults and free, safe recreation opportunities in the neighborhood (were also on the list)."
Nelson said he believes residents will want to get involved in the project.
"We had over 400 residents at a rally (earlier this year) to stop the sex trade in the neighborhood." He said. The rally was held in front of the National Lodge at 17th and International, a hot spot for prostitution, according to a lawsuit.
Last December, former Oakland City Attorney John Russo filed lawsuits against the National Lodge and two other motels alleging their businesses were places used for prostitution and sexual exploitation of minors. The Economy Inn at 122 E. 12th St. and the Sage Motel at 4844 MacArthur Blvd. were also sued. A spokesman from the City Attorney's Office said the lawsuits remain in the courts.
Bolton said police do not have statistics on how many "johns" are arrested annually for solicitation because the numbers vary. "Arrests are only representative of how many operations we are able to do,'' he said. "We do as many operations as we can. The fact of the matter is we can't do as many as we'd like to."
However, estimates are that as many as 200,000 American children are at high risk for sex industry trafficking each year, according to the Polaris Project, a Washington-based group working to combat human trafficking in the United States and worldwide.