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Dallas Police Aim To Help, Not Jail, Prostitutes

Dallas Police Aim To Help, Not Jail, Prostitutes

A woman arrested for prostitution is taken for processing at a mobile command unit that includes health and social services as part of an intervention program in Dallas. (AP Photo)

The AP via YellowBrix

January 05, 2010

It was nearly midnight in a cramped mobile courtroom in the back of an 18-wheeler, and a prostitute in a Tweety Bird shirt was apologizing to a judge for falling asleep during her hearing.

She hadn’t slept for three days and was coming down from a crack high, she explained. The combination left her too impaired to make a choice that only Dallas offers prostitutes: Go to rehab or go to jail.

With those options, the city is taking a new approach to the world’s oldest profession. Police treat prostitutes as sex crime victims, offering many a chance to clean up and get off the streets.

The program’s advocates acknowledge its success has been limited — about half of the 375 women have chosen rehab, and just 21 have turned their lives around. But authorities say they’re gaining the women’s trust and have gotten leads on unsolved crimes.

The program could soon spread beyond Dallas. More than 200 law enforcement agents from the U.S. and Canada attended the National Prostitution Diversion conference here in November. Since then, groups from Edmonton, Atlanta and Fort Worth have asked for more information about the program.

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“We are the pioneers, I suppose,” said Renee Breazeale, program director for Homeward Bound, a nonprofit detoxification and counseling center in Dallas. “It’s the only police-led program and represents a change of culture for law enforcement.”

The program starts with a monthly roundup of prostitutes in an area health officials consider the national epicenter of syphilis. Dallas vice police have identified more than 1,300 prostitutes working four truck stops serve that more than 2,000 big rigs a day.

“Truckers were conducting counter-surveillance for prostitutes,” Dallas police Sgt. Louis Felini said. “They let them use CB radios to advertise prostitution and drugs. As soon as a squad car entered the lot, every truck driver along I-20 knew how many cops and where they were.”

Arresting prostitutes accomplished little. Many considered going to jail part of the cost of doing business and were back at the truck stops within 48 hours, Felini said.

Deciding to try something new, he found five of the worst-off women spots in Homeward Bound. All eventually gave up prostitution, and Felini had an idea.

“If we were able to do that for the worst of the worst, then maybe we could do that on a much larger scale,” he said.

His brainstorm became the Prostitution Diversion Initiative. Police set up a staging area once a month in a vacant lot near the truck stops. Four mobile command trucks surround folding tables and chairs where social service workers set up shop. The action usually begins about 7 p.m. and runs until 3 a.m.

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