Saturday, July 19, 2003

Robert Moran
Inquirer Staff Writer

Undercover police effort seeks to curb prostitution

Philadelphia officers in the Citywide Vice Unit made eight arrests late Thursday and early yesterday

Jose Dones was cruising for action on Spruce Street in Center City shortly after 1 a.m. yesterday when he spotted a 20-year-old transgendered woman, Brandy. He made eye contact.

Brandy, standing more than 6 feet tall, allegedly shook her breasts and offered to perform sex acts for money. That's what Dones wanted to hear.

She got in the car, but she was suspicious. She asked him to touch her breasts to prove he wasn't a cop. He refused.

And so, at a corner of Broad and Spruce across from the Kimmel Center, the crown jewel of the Avenue of the Arts, Brandy jumped out of the car and ran, pumping furiously on her high heels. She nearly made it to the front of the Doubletree Hotel at Broad and Locust before officers apprehended her.

"Don't you have drug dealers to lock up?" Brandy complained.

"No, we work prostitution only," an officer replied.

Dones and the other officers are part of the Philadelphia Police Department's Citywide Vice Unit, specifically the Prostitution Control Squad. They were out late Thursday night into early yesterday morning conducting a sting on streetwalkers who work a circuit that runs along 12th and 13th Streets, bordered on the north by Spring Garden Street and on the south by Spruce.

South of Walnut, prostitution has long been a problem in an area nicknamed the gayborhood because of a concentration of businesses that cater to lesbians, gays, bisexuals and transgendered people, known collectively as the LGBT community.

Joe Brazino of the Washington Square West Civic Association said the problem grew "out of control" last summer and became one of several critical issues that prompted a community meeting with Mayor Street in October.

"It's just a matter of quality of life for the neighbors," said Brazino, chair of the association's safety and security committee. "They're just tired of seeing this all the time."

Since then, Brazino said, he has noticed a decrease in people offering their bodies for cash, "but it's still there."

And it should be a matter of concern for the city's image, Brazino said, since many theater patrons, including those who attend the Kimmel, walk the same blocks to nearby parking lots, "and there's people turning tricks."

Around Locust and Spruce, the vice officers usually pick up male prostitutes and transgendered women. Brandy, for example, was a man and now is a transgendered woman, police said. They added that they also see more male hustlers on the dark, desolate blocks south of Spring Garden.

Prostitution is typically a misdemeanor, punishable by a fine and probation.

The topic is sensitive for the LGBT community, especially the treatment by police of those who are arrested for the crime.

"They're very rude," complained one transgendered woman who asked not to be named. "Once they find out you're a transsexual, they treat you like one of the guys."

A reporter accompanying the most recent sting observed the vice officers describing transgendered arrestees as "dress-ups," alternating in reference among him, her, and sometimes it.

The police and the LGBT community have tried to bridge the cultural gap with a police liaison committee. One of the accomplishments of the committee was to have the Police Department put in writing a policy of segregating, when space is available, transgendered arrestees from male prisoners.

Cpl. Raymond Drummond, a vice unit supervisor, said the officers try to be fair to transgendered people and other sexual minorities.

"We try to treat them like any other citizen," he said.

Drummond, a 33-year veteran of the force, has been with Citywide Vice for nine years. He supervises the night shift, mostly handling street prostitution, and in the latest operation, he oversaw two teams in Center City.

Each team had a decoy: a plainclothes officer driving a sedan and pretending to be a customer. Behind each decoy was a chase vehicle that would rush in after the decoy signaled for an arrest.

At 1:30 a.m. yesterday, one of the decoys made a pickup — a male — near 12th and Spruce. The decoy drove south on Juniper Street and signaled that a deal had been made. The male realized he was about to be arrested and bolted from the car. He was caught nearby on Pine Street.

The male, the officers discovered, was 16. He lives in South Philadelphia and attends high school. He is supposed to start 12th grade this fall.

The teenager offered to perform a sex act for $30, the decoy said.

The boy was loaded into a minivan and sat in the back with a transgendered woman, Kenyah, 23, who had been arrested earlier. She wore curved metal spike heels.

"You look nice tonight," Drummond told her.

"I always look nice," Kenyah declared.

At the staging area north of Vine, where prisoners were being held in a marked police van, Kenyah was asked a series of medical questions by a female officer and then directed into the back of the van.

Several prisoners complained that their plastic handcuffs were too tight. One kept asking whether she was going to get her handbag back. Yes, one officer repeatedly assured her, growing more agitated each time.

Meanwhile, Drummond was on a cellular phone, calling the teenage boy's grandmother. Drummond first talked to a male who said he was the boy's uncle.

He's been arrested, Drummond said.

The crime? "Prostitution."

Upon hearing that, the boy gasped and muttered, "Oh, my God!"

In all, the sting netted seven adults and one juvenile.

At 2:08 a.m., Drummond sent his officers back to their headquarters at the Frankford Arsenal.

"It's a wrap," he said. "This is what we do."

— Contact staff writer Robert Moran at 215-854-2759 or

© 2003 Philadelphia Inquirer and wire service sources. All Rights Reserved.

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