Vice cop Jim Duncan knows the El Cajon Blvd. prostitutes

San Diego Police have their ways

— Take it from Jim Duncan: this is how it is between midnight and 3:00 a.m. around El Cajon Boulevard. "You pull up, roll your window down, 'You need a ride?' 'Going to a party?' She'll look in and she'll say, 'Hey, you look like a cop to me' and won't get in the car. Or maybe she'll say, 'No. Not working tonight.' Or maybe she'll say 'I just live here and I'm minding my own business, so take off, asshole.'

"It's very fast-paced. You may get the prostitute in the car. But if you don't make a deal in five minutes, stop, let her out, go on to the next one. We've had good nights and bad nights. One night not too long ago I was out with them, they probably stopped 25 prostitutes on El Cajon Boulevard and University Avenue, and didn't make one [arrest]."

Lt. Duncan is talking about his life for the past two and a half years, running the city's vice unit.

What every plain-clothes, plain-car-driving detective is pretending to be a john for is to get the prostitute to talk money. Sex is legal. Sex for cash isn't. "The best case is getting them to tell you, 'Yeah. You want to have oral sex? It's going to cost you $40.' That's a good case. There's no doubt about it. But if they're not forthcoming with that kind of remark, [the cop may say], 'Well how about straight sex for $20?' And if she says, 'Yeah, that sounds good,' to get an act of furtherance, he gives her a $20 bill. If she takes it, great. If he hands her a rubber and she opens it, that helps [make a case] too."

"Prostitutes have their way of making a determination if it's a police officer [they're dealing with]. They'll feel him up for a gun. They will ask them to expose themselves. They will ask [the cop] to touch them. They will expose a part of their anatomy and say, 'If you're not a cop you have to touch me here.' If that happens, you don't do it. You don't want them that bad.

"A lot of times the prostitute won't make any deal until they're out of range of the streetlights, until they're off the main thoroughfare.

"Of course, there are always several cop cars following. You have to have several, because the [prostitutes are] cognizant of cars behind them. They watch the mirror to see if it's the same car that stays behind. If it is, they'll just say, 'Stop the car. I'm getting out.' So the cop stops the car and they get out. That's it. No deal.

"There are a number of different signals that we use for 'The case is made.' At that time we'll have a marked police unit come up and stop them, like a regular traffic stop, get the prostitute out, tell her she's under arrest for prostitution, and put her in the back of the police car."

We're talking in Duncan's new office, on the second floor of the police headquarters at 14th and Broadway. He's getting ready to repaint the dun-green walls, but first he needs to cover over the holes where his predecessors hammered in hooks for their family photos. The place could use new carpeting.

Since 1996 he's been running the vice unit for the sdpd from three floors above. This month, he was reassigned to take charge of the Special Investigations Unit, a surveillance unit that investigates long-term and serious crimes.

A detective at vice, he says, is more an entry-level type job, an assignment for the new and the young.

"The reason is it requires nighttime hours. They work from 4:30 in the afternoon till 2:30, 3:00 in the morning. And they're dealing strictly with misdemeanor crimes, pretty much, generally either involving prostitution or ABC [Alcoholic Beverage Control Department] type violations. They're on the street constantly."

Prostitution, Duncan hastens to point out, is by no means the only focus of the unit's attentions. There are 34 officers in the unit, including ten detectives and two sergeants on nights, ten detectives and two sergeants on days. As the lieutenant in charge, Duncan has spent more time at city hall than on El Cajon Boulevard. Prostitution is just the most obvious of dozens of jobs that have somehow crept under the umbrella of vice. There's bookmaking and gambling, and other police-regulated businesses such as nude and topless bars, licensing restaurants for liquor, licensing users of burglar alarms, licensing tow trucks.

But Duncan doesn't forget vice's core mission. "If you look back around the turn of the century, we were called the Morals Squad. Especially during the Prohibition era, then it was very strict controls."

A hundred years later, the unit's prime task is still prostitution. And Duncan says there's nothing pretty about it. People who think of Julia Roberts in Pretty Woman when they think of the oldest profession, have got it all wrong.

"There was a woman working East San Diego area last year who had an ulcer on her arm that went from mid-bicep to her wrist, from injecting heroin, and she smelled like dead flesh. In the pictures of it that we have, it's unbelievable that a person would even be alive and have that kind of an open wound. It was massive. And she is a prostitute. That's how she's getting her money for her heroin. And she's still injecting into that ulceration. And a couple of times the vice detectives didn't know her. They'd pick her up, to try and work a deal on a prostitution case...and here's this woman, and she wears a long-sleeved jacket or shirt sleeve. Just disgusting. Not to mention all the disease they're involved with on a regular basis."

Some young detectives balk. "They don't want to be involved in some of this stuff," says Duncan. "They say, 'You want me to go out and try and arrest the prostitutes? I'll do that. Or if you want me to make sure that the bars aren't serving minors? Then I'll do that, but I don't want to be involved in checking a massage parlor, or checking an escort service, or going into an [adult] bookstore and making sure that the customers aren't in there masturbating...' "

But why such concentration on the lowest rungs of prostitution? What about the sophisticated, equally illegal call girl organizations?

"The [police] department had a study conducted by Luth Research Inc., [a local market research group]. They conducted a survey of several hundred citizens of San Diego. And the consensus of this survey was that these citizens all realized that the potential for prostitution [among] massage, holistic health practitioners, and escort services, was very high. Yet they weren't as concerned about that type of prostitution activity. Because they felt these acts were taking place in private, out of the realm of the public view. The only reason the vice unit maintains any type of contact with those types of businesses [is that] there's always the potential for a more organized type crime syndicate running that type of operation."

The most social harm comes from the streetwalkers, Duncan believes. "The vice unit gets calls on a regular basis from mothers concerned about the welfare of their children when they go to school in the morning and there's discarded used prophylactics on the ground, or they're blocked by a car and they see two people involved in a sexual act.... Prostitution is not a glorious type of activity. Normally it takes place in a car on the street."

And along with prostitutes come pimps and the drugs they push on their prostitutes. "I don't care what they say, pimps are vicious, brutal people who demean the women that work for them," Duncan says. "The prostitutes themselves are the biggest victims of the crime."

That doesn't mean he believes their stories. "As a young police officer I was told by a senior police officer who trained me, 'There are two people that you absolutely never trust when they're talking to you: one is a prostitute, the other is a heroin addict.' "

Duncan has been a cop for 31 years, 26 years with SDPD. He was inspired by beat officers who walked the streets outside his father's house in City Heights. "I thought it was a pretty exciting-looking job. I guess I just liked the way they treated me. I think that our agency has now gone back to that era where the officers are more neighborhood-oriented. That's a big factor in police philosophy throughout the nation."

It's certainly a big factor for Duncan's successor, Lt. Sarah Creighton, 36. Sitting cross-legged on the carpet of the fifth-floor office Duncan vacated, she's sorting out police manuals and municipal codes. A blue bullet-proof vest hangs on the back of a chair. This is her second day.

She hasn't had a lot of vice experience yet but has become a true advocate of the community-based self-policing of prostitution. She scored a recent success in City Heights.

"We were able to get four restraining orders [in September last year] against about 80 prostitutes. It's a civil action. The community had to be involved in it. At this time those prostitutes are prohibited from being anywhere within the zones where the restraining orders are. And that's for a three-year period. That was a major win for the community and a major win for us, because unfortunately there's not a whole lot that we can do with prostitution unless we see it."

Creighton knows the neighborhoods where prostitution thrives. "I grew up in the ghetto in every community that I lived in. [My mother was a] single parent, disabled, on welfare. She was a diabetic, allergic to insulin. And she contracted hepatitis in Vietnam. She was there rescuing orphans. She's since passed away. She was a remarkable woman. I'm sure I got my gumption from her. But we were very poor. I grew up as a survivalist, not in the terms of the Montana Freemen."

Creighton favors vice implementing formal measures to help prostitutes escape "the life." She was energized by a recent incident.

"This came about because a mother slapped her daughter down here in front and said, 'I don't want her home," says sergeant Terry McLean, one of Creighton's senior detectives, who's spearheading the program. "Her daughter was a prostitute -- just 18 -- who had come to us and wanted to turn in her pimp, wanted to leave the life. We called her mother. Her mother came to the station, got out of the car, slapped her, said, 'I don't want her at home,' and drove off. Now what do we do? She was homeless at that point, without money, without friends, because her friends were involved in prostitution. So we ended up putting her in a hotel and then after trying several social service agencies, we found one that would take her. We still have contact with her, and she's not back in the game that we're aware of."

"That really is a tremendous example of problem-oriented policing," says Creighton. "Finding the root cause, to know what is causing the problem. The problem is she had no place to go; she didn't have a support system. Now she has a place to be, she has a support system; that's how you stop a problem from continuing. And that's the direction the department is going, [instead of] just going out and arrest, arrest, arrest. You can do that till you're blue in the face. Going for the cause, rather than the symptoms: More of that will be happening."

That approach may differ from Duncan's.

"I am an enforcement-oriented police officer," he says, "which means that there are some situations that cannot be dealt with by a handshake and a friendly word. You have to put some of them in jail, and I think prostitution is definitely one of those areas. I'd like to see some more jail space for prostitutes."

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