Letter from the Editor

Thursday, February 28, 2008

Hookers, cops and the advertising biz

Imagine the look on the face of a "john" who show up for an appointment with a lady of the evening, only to find it's actually a bunch of burly policemen waiting to make a sneaky bust.

I suppose some of them might have envisioned the possibility of handcuffs and such - but not quite like this.

Des Moines cops recently graduated from calling up provocative advertisers they found on the internet to running their own such ads on Craigslist posing vaguely as prostitutes, hoping to catch anyone who would respond with a cash offer.

Now, there is a difference between "stinging" prostitution rings and becoming one. And isn't fraudulent advertising also a crime? In effect, they are drumming up apparent criminal activity in order to make arrests for it.

Of course, nobody is going to shed too many tears for the potential patrons of prostitution who got caught in this scheme.

Some would claim that prostitution is a victimless crime, but it of course is no such thing. No one wants to encourage that kind of reputation for their city. There are concerns for the spreading of venereal diseases, and the possibility of drugs and other vice that may follow the same pathway. The biggest victims may well be the very women who seem to profit. They are at risk of violence, sickness, loss of self esteem, manipulation by unscrupulous people who pimp them out ultimately claim the profits from their bodies, repeated arrests. It is hard to see much of a future for anyone in the business.

Years ago, prostitutes advertised their trade mainly in newspapers, and police from time to time would try to clean things up be running a sting. In one notable case, former Des Moines police chief Billie B. Wallace ran ads in the Des Moines Register seeking customers for "Billie's Girls."

Register editors were not amused, and have protested the "misuse" of their ad space for such stings.

(Is it just a touch hypocritical when the Register this past week ran a big bold story on the prostitution arrests at the top of its Around Iowa page, when in the classifieds of the very same issue, the Register clearly profits from ad sales to at least four "Models & Escort" services? It is a field lucrative enough that the Register has its own black banner for that particular classification of ad - which one would doubt is really about "modeling." The ads boast services like "Leisure Ladiez" available 24 hours a day for either in-house services or out-calls.)

Unless all those ads are also being bought up by police, it seems there is some housecleaning to do locally before trying to stir up new interest in prostitution on the 'net.

I can only recall one Storm Lake prostitution sting in my time here. Some years ago, a hooker was apparently advertising brazenly in a statewide paper of her schedule to be in the city at a particular motel on a particular date. Police showed up and arrested her and her associate, then stuck around to bust a handful of clients who showed up too.

I don't recall the particulars, but someone later told me that one of the men who was arrested for coming to that door was a longtime area educator, an older gentleman whose spouse had been sick for a long time or something to that effect - his major crime, it seemed, was loneliness. It was one of the few times I've ever felt bad about running a perpetrator's name in a crime story.

Stings are generally great things. Storm Lake police from time to time, for example, recruit teenagers to go into businesses to see who will illegally sell alcohol or tobacco to underage kids without checking IDs. There have been cases where an undercover officer has purchased drugs in order to break up a narcotics ring and get the garbage off the street. These are fantastic and necessary services to a community, and citizens should appreciate the initiative and courage involved.

There is debate in the legislature this year about changing the law to give more teeth to undercover police posing as juveniles on the internet in order to jail potential child stalkers - and this too, unfortunately, seems to be quite necessary.

Would it be as appropriate for police to take the next step, though? Instead of posing as customers to catch people providing the illegal services or worse - having them pose as the crime providers themselves in order to see if they can produce clients?

Police in some parts of the country have posed female officers as street hookers begging passers-by to "party," then arresting them if they agree. And of course, putting it all on TV shows.

It would be a similar situation if area Police were (they're not!!) offering cigarettes, Jack Daniels and meth to kids on the streets and then arresting them if they took it.

One can argue that by posing as prostitution services, police might scare real prostitutes off to places where there may be less risk in their occupation. Or at least that the men they con into agreeing to their offer would probably have gone and found real hookers somewhere else if they hadn't arrested them. True.

But it is also true that creating a crime in order to make arrests of those who react to it certainly seems like entrapment.

Perhaps, instead of having the police underwrite the same situations that let real criminals communicate with their potential clientele, by running their own prostitution ads in print and online, they should concentrate on shutting down those channels.

Should newspapers be allowed to profit by selling ads to "escort services," and should online sites be permitted to openly provide advertising to prostitution, while going blameless themselves?

Many newspapers, by the way, including the Pilot-Tribune, can and do turn down advertising revenue from any source that they have reason to expect are providing illegal or fraudulent situations to their readers, or are generally innapropriate for the audience.

For the record, the Des Moines cops say johns they arrestsed were offering a going rate of about $150 for sex services. Ladies and gentlemen, you can do better going to plumbing school.