OAKLAND — Two girls who look as young as 15 stroll along a stretch of International Boulevard in East Oakland known as the "track" and lean into the passenger-side window of a compact car. They giggle while holding a brief conversation with the driver.

Next, they walk to a nearby shopping plaza and jump into a van with expired registration tags. Suddenly, several patrol cars are on the scene, lights flashing and sirens wailing. Officers arrest the driver of the van for expired tags.

The girls, unaware of the Oakland Police Department undercover male cops trolling the area, are busted for loiteringfor the purposes of prostitution.

It's a scene that plays out two or three times a week during covert operations by the police. Undercover cops arrest women and children, caught loitering, exposing themselves, flagging down vehicles and soliciting sex.

Police make about 20 prostitution arrests each week, two of whom are children. Still, in the last few years, police say they have noticed more child and teen prostitutes on the street.

"The problem is bigger than we thought," said Lt. Kevin Wiley of the Oakland Police Department, an expert in child prostitution who said he has seen an increase in the number of young girls walking the streets.

In response, the city convened a task force a year ago to address the issue but have yet to make any recommendations.

Meanwhile, police have only just started to quantify the problem and have been working to nail down firm numbers.


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In one of the most comprehensive counts to date, the Oakland Police Department identified 293 teens younger than 18 being prostituted by at least 155 pimps over the year-and-a-half period that ended in May 2003.

In just one week in July, police from five Bay Area cities, including Oakland, netted 131 arrests in a Bay Area-wide prostitution sting.

Shifting police tactics

With more minors entering the prostitution trade, police are changing how they react to the problem. Today, police focus on victim-driven investigations instead of treating children involved in prostitution as criminals.

Police are going beyond traditional sweatshop and massage parlor stings to combat prostitution, instead examining the factors that lead to the commercial sexual exploitation of children. They found many of the children involved in prostitution are chronic runaways or fleeing sexual, mental and physical abuse at home.

Officers are now trained to understand the dynamics of physical and sexual abuse and to use that reasoning in dealing with prostitution cases.

And police plan to soon keep tabs on those cases by using a new database they hope will make it easier to help the girls and identify and build a case against the men who are victimizing them.

The database allows police to track and aggressively investigate sexual exploitation, child abuse and human trafficking. The goal is to conduct weekly operations, take down the big-time pimps and rescue children off the street. It will be linked with federal agencies where information can be uploaded and shared across the country to provide a comprehensive record of the children — and pimps — involved in exploitation.

Officers hope the database will help them identify, measure and analyze how effectively they handle prostitution investigations. The database is expected to be filled with current caseloads and be up and running next month.

"The good thing is that it gives us more resources," Wiley said. "We can be even more aggressive in getting the bad guys."

This month, the department was also awarded a $300,000 federal grant through the Adam Walsh Child Protection and Safety Act. The money will be used for a tracking system to capture information, including DNA, about registered sex offenders. Police hope the new system will help them better crack down on pedophiles who prey on Oakland's children.

Last year, of the 443 females arrested for prostitution in Oakland, 29 were juvenile cases. About 59 johns were arrested.

Changed by technology

Police are finding the business of prostitution is much more sophisticated than it was a decade ago.

Technology, the Internet, and cell phones have all changed the game. Pimps now use technology to sell girls as young as 11 or 12 for sex on the Internet and on the street.

"The younger the girls, the more protected by the pimp," Wiley said.

Wiley said child prostitutes in Oakland also work the San Francisco and Richmond circuit. Some of them travel to Oakland from as far away as Las Vegas, Los Angeles or San Diego to make money for their pimps.

Jim Saleda, an officer with the Oakland Police Child Exploitation Unit, said the going rate for sex with healthier, prettier prostitutes as young as 11 or 12 is about $120. The cost for oral sex is about $80, but on a slow night it could drop to as low as $40.

"They have their own economy out there," he said.

When children are arrested on the street, typically their pimps are watching from nearby, making it difficult for police to go after them because the No. 1 rule of prostitution is to "never give up your pimp," Saleda said.

Some prostitutes answer to a "bottom bitch," or a senior girl tasked with disciplining, training and collecting money.

"They are the buffer between the pimp and the girls, which makes it harder to bring a case against a pimp," Saleda said.

Many girls are manipulated and forced into prostitution by their pimps who provide them with a replacement family for the troubled homes they come from. Other "guerrilla pimps" rape and beat the girls before putting them on the street.

"No one wakes up in the morning and says, 'I want to be a prostitute, this is great,'" Saleda said. "They are constantly raped and robbed and it's glamorized in pop culture."

Hot spots

Police have identified International Boulevard, also known as "the track" from 20th Avenue in East Oakland up to the San Leandro border, as the city's most notorious area for prostitution. Other hot spots include San Pablo Avenue in West Oakland and hotels along MacArthur Boulevard and near the McAfee Coliseum. West MacArthur and West Grand Avenue are also known prostitution areas.

Special Victims Unit officers say that as the problem has grown bigger, so has their response.

During the last six to eight months, police have spotted mobile brothels as the latest prostitution trend in Oakland.

Pimps rent vehicles such as U-Haul trucks, sport utility vehicles or custom 70s vans, advertising by word of mouth to "come and have a good time."

Some of the prostitutes carry razors or knives with them for protection. Dressed in short, tight miniskirts and high heels, many of the girls are unaware of the police "swoop signal" to arrest and take them off to Santa Rita county jail or juvenile hall.

Since the department started focusing on more victim-driven investigations, many officers say some prostitutes have been more responsive.

"Although girls don't trust the police, they are more willing to report their victimization," Wiley said. "That is a step in the right direction."

Contact Kamika Dunlap at kdunlap@bayareanewsgroup.com or 510-208-6448.