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Rantz: Prostitutes flood Seattle as city attorney refuses to charge, cops complain

Traffic passes along a north Seattle area, around Aurora Avenue, known for prostitution. (AP Photo/Elaine Thompson)

If you’re wondering why you see so many prostitutes openly working Seattle streets, cops contend you should blame it on City Attorney Pete Holmes. Cops complain that his office generally refuses to pursue charges against prostitutes.

Consequently, prostitutes are flocking to Seattle from out of town and cops feel powerless to attack the problem, according to officers who spoke with the Jason Rantz Show on KTTH.

“Law enforcement do want to do something to combat this problem because we know it is affecting the neighborhoods,” one Seattle officer tells me, on the condition of anonymity as they haven’t been granted permission to talk to the press. “We choose not to because we know that we will not get any support from the prosecutor’s office.”

A short drive around the Licton Springs low-barrier Tiny House Village, just north of Woodland Park Zoo, you’ll spot about a half dozen female prostitutes walking up and down Aurora Avenue waiting for clients to solicit them at all hours of the day.

Many of the prostitutes come from out of town, officers have discovered, having heard of the city’s lax laws. They come here knowing they won’t be hassled. Some are there willingly, others are forced to by abusive pimps, who also ravage the neighborhoods with drug dealing and petty theft.

This problem impacts the neighborhood, making it unsafe, while driving down businesses near the corners these sex workers roam. But the impact extends beyond cleaning up the streets and the nuisance they pose.

Cops aren’t necessarily interested in immediately arresting women selling sex on the streets. In many cases, the women are victims themselves and cops would like to help them, every bit as much as the City Attorney’s Office.

But cops want to arrest pimps, as they’re often nearby in a car waiting for their prostitutes to drop off cash from a client. Without being able to use jail time as leverage over the prostitutes to turn on their pimps, it’s a futile effort.

“The women would rather get arrested, get [released] in a couple hours of being booked, than dime out the pimp/trafficker that have intimidated them with bodily harm if they turn in their pimp/trafficker,” a second officer told me.

Prostitution strategy is intentional

Holmes did not provide comments for this story. But his office, through his spokesperson Dan Nolte, acknowledges they don’t normally prosecute sex workers because, in the past, “these efforts were met with limited success…”

“The Seattle Police Department would arrest persons committing the offense of prostitution, and our office would charge them,” Nolte said. “But once released, those individuals would return to their pimps (and/or pimps and traffickers procured replacements), and the cycle would continue. Prostitution is a demand-driven industry. As long as demand exists, pimps and traffickers will be incentivized to drive more vulnerable people into prostitution.”

A few years ago, Holmes’ office decided to target the sex buyers, not the sex workers, for prosecution. They want to cut down on the demand. Indeed, last year, Nolte reports they filed 263 charges of sexual exploitation (compare that to the five charges against sex workers; in these cases, it’s because they repeatedly refuse to accept resources to get them off the streets).

Holmes’ office says they also want to go after pimps, but cops argue that job is made harder by the city attorney’s policies.

It’s become common knowledge among the prostitutes that Holmes won’t prosecute. So there’s no incentive for these sex workers to risk their lives by turning on their pimp. It could also explain why some sex workers refuse services offered to them by the city.

Does this strategy work? It depends on who you ask. Cops have overwhelmingly told me no. And for some, they think the problem is worsening. Business owners and residents on Aurora aren’t happy either.

“Every day I go in and it’s a battle of which girl is standing on the corner,” Candice Robertson, manger of Comfort Inn & Suites at 137th Street and Aurora, told KIRO Radio’s Dori Monson in September. “It used to be just at night they’d come out, but now they’re out constantly. It’s been a deterrent for a lot of our customers and it’s really unfortunate because I grew up in this area and I’ve never seen it as bad as it is.”

Some cops still want to get involved, even if Holmes won’t prosecute. But there’s another issue hanging over their heads. Even if they decided to get involved, they’ll face scrutiny so unrealistically high, it’s not worth it. Indeed, their complaints return to the Office of Police Accountability, an independent office within the SPD that cops argue is over-zealous.

“…it is known that any time we enforce a law and affect an arrest it could be hyper scrutinized in the event the arrest does not go perfect,” an officer explains. “An example would be officers go to place a suspect into custody for a crime and they struggle or fight with officers. This could lead to a use of force that will be reviewed by the Use of Force review board. One of the first things they will look at is the severity of the crime. In prostitution, this will be looked at because it is well known that the prostitutes themselves are not being charged.”

Consequently, the prostitution problem continues to impact neighborhoods and sex workers and cops are left wondering when they’ll be able to attack the problem with a strategy that leaves them more room to police.

Listen to the Jason Rantz Show weekday mornings from 6-9 a.m. on KTTH 770 AM (or HD Radio 97.3 FM HD-Channel 3). Subscribe to the podcast here.

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