St. Louis police shame prostitute customers with ‘Dear John’ postcards

04/15/2014 8:36 AM

04/15/2014 8:36 AM

City police are reviving a push to target — or perhaps humiliate — those prowling the streets for prostitutes.

“Johns” charged with trying to pick up prostitutes will receive postcards by mail admonishing them for their crime, giving reminders about spreading sexually transmitted diseases and listing their court dates.

“Thanks for your visit to…” the bright postcards say, leaving a spot for the location and date of a crime. “The city of St. Louis, its residents and your neighbors would like to remind you that lewd, lascivious and/or suggestive behavior (including but not limited to prostitution, solicitation and prostitution loitering) are a violation of city ordinance and state law.”

The penalty for solicitation, a city ordinance violation, is often no harsher than paying a fine. So police hope the postcards serve as an attention-grabbing deterrent to johns.

Police are rolling out the program this week in two city neighborhoods — Carondelet and Holly Hills — where residents have complained of prostitutes trolling for tricks.

“If there weren’t customers, prostitutes would be out of business,” said St. Louis Police Capt. Dan Howard. “And what we’re looking to do is put them out of business.”

In addition, police say they plan to routinely provide local news media with mug shots of those charged with prostitution crimes to dissuade them from trying it again. Police say the strategy may help tackle a tricky problem of combating a crime in which the same people are being arrested for prostitution and released over and over again, a crime they use to support drug habits.

The postcard approach is not a new one, and shaming people to curb prostitution has been used before in St. Louis and elsewhere. St. Louis police tried the same strategy in 2005 when police observed prostitution cases soaring in the city. The difference with the latest effort is that patrol officers instead of vice squads will be used to catch johns.

Police departments in several other cities from Sarasota, Fla., to Baltimore, Md., to Oakland, Calif., have used similar letter-writing campaigns. Police in Richmond, Va., posted photos of johns to Facebook and Twitter. Several years ago, Chicago police posted pictures of suspects online, while Milwaukee police showcased offenders on a city-run television program.

Howard, commander of the city’s first district, said the department’s redistricting plan launched in January has provided additional officers who can be assigned to work undercover stings. Redistricting reduced the department’s districts from nine to six with the goal of shortening response times and balancing workloads among its roughly 1,300 officers.

“This is the type of flexibility the captains were asking for through redistricting,” Howard said.

The postcard campaign could expand to other parts of the city if police see progress in the Holly Hills and Carondelet neighborhoods, Howard said. Police will gauge the program’s success based on arrests and feedback from residents.

“Residents should be able to walk around in their neighborhoods without being confronted by predators,” Howard said.

Alderman Tom Villa, whose Ward 11 includes parts of the Carondelet and Holly Hills neighborhoods, says South Broadway from Bates Street to the city-county line is a problem area for prostitution, especially as the weather warms up.

Villa says the postcards make sense in generating awareness of what is often considered a low-priority crime problem even if the cards have little chance of sending a message to streetwalkers.

“Last night my wife and I came home from dinner about 8 p.m. and there were a couple ladies spinning umbrellas down there,” Villa said. “They probably weren’t with the circus.”

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