There was a time in the not so distant past when police departments far and wide had the resources to do regular prostitution stings, arresting scores of johns, pimps and sex workers in a single night.

Police departments -- from Dublin to Oakland and Concord to Richmond -- still conduct undercover stings, targeting not only johns who come looking to buy sex but also women walking the streets and advertising their services on the Internet, setting up shop in a motel room.

But with massive budget cuts to police departments, violent crime up and the gang and drug trades keeping officers busy, police are looking to community groups, nonprofits and even private citizens to help crack down on the illegal sex trade.

In Oakland, the East Bay Asian Youth Center, or EBAYC, works with the Alameda County Human Relations Commission and Clear Channel to keep billboards -- at International Boulevard and 13th Ave.and International Boulevard and Miller Avenue -- up and the johns away.

The billboards, which feature three mothers warning "johns" to stop using girls for sex in their neighborhood, read:

"Here to buy sex? STOP IT!

What if she was YOUR daughter?

We are mothers here.

And we WILL report you."

EBAYC community organizer Andy Nelsen said the nonprofit would like to expand the program with posters at bus stops and businesses, but money is needed: the billboards alone cost about $1,000 per month, he said.

"I think it's important to try something new because this problem has been around for decades and there hasn't been much movement on it, and the problem is getting bigger in some areas," said Michelle Stivers, one of the mothers on the billboards.

Community efforts

Oakland Police Sgt. Holly Joshi is with the vice and child exploitation unit and has worked as an undercover prostitute on International Boulevard during past police stings. She knows that police can't do all the crime-fighting.

"I think that everything helps," Joshi said. "(The billboards) are tools. Not one thing is going to work alone, but in conjunction with other community efforts and law enforcement tools, they can work."

What's more, last December the city sued the owners of three East Oakland motels -- the Economy Inn, the National Lodge and the Sage Hotel -- that had become centers for prostitution, including child prostitution. In early October, Alameda County Superior Court Judge Brenda Harbin-Forte found that prostitution and related activities at the motels presented a "grave and irreparable harm to the public."

The judge imposed restrictions on the businesses and ordered them to install security cameras and lighting, limit the number of visitors per room and put up 8-foot fences to control access to their properties. She ruled that minors not with parents or guardians must have valid identification and nonregistered guests could not "loiter, prowl or wander" upon the properties at any time. Owners are banned from renting to a list of known johns and pimps, and the license plates on the property are now being documented.

"By all accounts, there has been a dramatic decrease in prostitution activity at these businesses since we filed the lawsuits," according to a statement from the city attorney's office.

Along with the billboards, EBAYC is still working on an idea to send "Dear John" warning letters to the homes of men who come to Oakland looking to hire sex workers. But the idea is controversial and would need the blessing of the city to move forward. The letters would not make accusations of a crime, but would alert the recipients that someone spotted their cars where there is widespread prostitution and point to the dangers of sex work and the impacts it has on women and girls.

Making an impact

Combined, the various measures seem to be having some impact on the sex trade, Nelsen said.

"We've seen a marked decrease in the street activity over the last year," he said. "Everyone is struck by the fact that we still see girls out there, but it's so much less. In the summer of 2010, girls were chased by pimps just walking down the street. It's not been like that this year. But it's still there, so we are trying to keep the pressure on the johns and the pimps."

In Richmond, police and their law enforcement partners struggled over the years to devote steady resources to the problem, or to develop a consistent approach. Periodic sting operations net women and customers but do little to interrupt daily business.

Once a local prostitute stroll, Richmond's 23rd Street now attracts women and customers from all over the Bay Area, from Santa Clara to Sonoma counties, police said. Some even come from out of state. Police say old crime management methods no longer fit the need, nor the needs of streetwalkers -- often victims themselves.

Last year, the department began working with Community Violence Solutions, a group that runs county rape crisis centers in Contra Costa and Marin counties that connect prostitutes with social service providers and provides information about life alternatives. In a unique move, tubes of lip balm were distributed to prostitutes with crisis hot line numbers printed on them.

There is no way to measure the success of the lip balm program, but Sgt. Ruth Ducharme, who supervises the Richmond Police Department's Family Services Unit, said "We are still really busy. One of the ways we intend to combat it is to address the problem consistently."

And the problem isn't isolated to urban areas.

Dublin Police Sgt. George Lytle said his department conducts prostitution stings on a weekly basis -- answering online Internet posts from women advertising services in the generally safe and affluent Tri-Valley. Women can charge $300 an hour and make more than $1,000 a day, which outweighs any criminal prosecution they may face, he said.

"It's just a way to make money," Lytle said. "It's safer than dealing drugs."

Community involvement seems to be an important part of reducing the sex trade in the Bay Area. Earlier this year, a task force in Vallejo suggested installing security cameras in heavily trafficked strolls and within a month six surveillance cameras were mounted on Sonoma Boulevard and in City Park on Marin Street.

Vallejo's Fighting Back Partnership, a nonprofit collaboration that partners with business, residents and government to improve neighborhoods and strengthen families, got involved and trained scores of people. Wearing neon green T-shirts, they patrolled problem areas, urging sex workers and pimps to get out of town. The patrols seemed to work as prostitution is less prevalent in that city now, residents said.

Minors and prostitution

In October, the Berkeley Commission on the Status of Women and the Peace and Justice Commission held a public forum on combating the sexual exploitation of minors to discuss, partly, the fact that there are Berkeley High School girls working as prostitutes.

"We definitely have Berkeley High School students who have been involved in prostitution," said Berkeley Police Detective Samantha Speelman. "Whether or not they are trying to recruit their friends is unknown. I can't give you any stats on how many, but we are seeing teenage girls and they are from Berkeley High."

Speelman said most of the prostitution is being set up by pimps on the Internet so there are not that many girls on San Pablo Avenue.

"What we do see is a 15-year-old arrested for shoplifting, and she has 10 condoms and hotel keys in her purse," she said.

Nola Brantley, executive director of Motivating, Inspiring, Supporting and Serving Sexually Exploited Youth, or MISSSEY, in Oakland, said the organization recently received a federal grant to match mentors with teens as part of their recovery from prostitution.

"There is an epidemic of children between 11 and 17 who are being bought and sold on the streets of Oakland in broad daylight," Brantley said. "And the children from Berkeley, Livermore, Pleasanton and Dublin are not safe from this."

Staff writers Doug Oakley, Sophia Kazmi, and Karl Fischer contributed to this report.