Sex for sale: Hitting the streets with hookers, johns and the Milwaukee Police
Podcast: Behind the scenes with the Milwaukee Vice
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It's approaching 10 p.m. on a drizzly weeknight in late August. While thousands of Milwaukeeans are struggling to stay awake long enough to watch the news, I'm riding shotgun in a pickup truck with Dan, a man I've known for only a few hours. We're cruising in and around an area known as Walnut Hill -- one of the more dangerous neighborhoods in the city -- and we are looking for prostitutes.
On the sidewalk adjoining a dark, drab street, we see a tall, athletic young African-American woman who appears to be in her late teens or early 20s. Dan tells me to roll down my window and pulls over to the curb.
"What are you up to tonight?" Dan asks the woman. "Are you looking to party?"
Depending on your perspective, the preceding setup may sound like a work of fiction, a comically embellished account of a bachelor party gone awry or perhaps a rock-bottom "share" from an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting.
The vignette actually took place during one of OnMilwaukee.com's two recent "ridealongs" with officers from the Milwaukee Police Department on a vice squad sting. Drew Olson and Andy Tarnoff split up to capture every angle of the action, tonight with new friend and driver, Detective Dan, who is a veteran vice squad detective. He's serving as one of our guides during a memorable tour of a side of the city that many people either don't notice -- or simply don't know exists.
In late June, Olson observed a group of officers from District Six during an afternoon undercover sting operation in a prostitution "hot spot" that runs from 21st St. to 35th St. around National Ave. and Greenfield Ave. Roughly two months later, Olson and Tarnoff returned to the same area with members of the vice squad to watch an afternoon sting looking for "johns" before heading to the near North Side to observe a sweep of prostitutes.
"We could be out here just about every day," says Lt. Bill Potterton, who oversaw the District Six operation. (In order to protect identities of undercover officers, OnMilwaukee.com won't use the last names or in some cases the real first names of some officers mentioned in this story. Supervisors like Potterton and Lt. Tom Welch didn't mind being identified.)
"Just about any time you drive through this area, you'll see prostitutes on the street and guys out looking for prostitutes."
Although prostitution is often linked to drug use and other more violent crimes, it seems to rank lower on the public awareness meter / priority scale. That is certainly understandable. Following a three-month period in which Milwaukee police arrested more than 14,000 people, confiscated 752 guns and seized 37 pounds of cocaine this summer, Chief Nan Hegerty recently spoke of a "societal crisis" in the central city.
In the past few weeks, Milwaukeeans were shocked by news of the shooting deaths of Candace Moss, a 13-year-old middle school student who was hit in the heart by a stray bullet while sitting on her neighbor's porch, and Brandon Sprewer, a 22-year-old Special Olympics athlete who was gunned down in a robbery attempt. The city was then repulsed by the multiple sexual assault of an 11-year-old girl, who was coerced by two older teens into having sexual contact on Labor Day with up to 19 men, one of whom was 40 years old. A police spokesperson said that the department has brought 453 solicitation charges this year.
Given that context, it's not surprising that prostitution arrests don't create major headlines. But, that doesn't stop the police from cracking down.
A quality of life crime
"People say it's a victimless crime, and it's not a big deal," says Officer Manny, a beat cop who took part in the District Six sting. "But, it's a big deal to the people who live in the neighborhood. You don't want to see guys driving around like that at all hours. You don't want to see condoms on the street. It's a quality of life thing.
"One Sunday morning, I was driving around, and the streets were pretty much empty. It's always quiet on Sunday. I saw a young girl at a bus stop and she was crying. I asked her what happened and some guy had just come by and asked her for sex, thinking she was a prostitute. She was just waiting for a bus to go to church. I told her,'Get in the car,' and I gave her a ride. I didn't want anyone else bothering her."
Officer Manny carries a small notebook that is packed with booking pictures of all the women he has come in contact with over the past several years. For people to whom the word "prostitute" conjures images of Julia Roberts in "Pretty Woman," Manny's book could be a shock. The women pictured look hardened and most are in throes of drug addiction.
"They're not out on the street because they're nymphomaniacs and they love sex," Detective Dan says during the North Side sting. "They've basically sold everything they have and now they're reduced to selling their bodies.
"Prostitution is just fueled by crack addition. I'd say 95 percent of prostitutes on the street level are addicted to crack cocaine. Years ago, it was heroin. Now, it's almost exclusively crack. Once in awhile, you run into a heroin addict. But, it's mostly crack."
Welch said that street prostitutes in Milwaukee charge anywhere from $20 to $40 for a oral sex and $40 to $100 for intercourse. "You might get a girl (to perform) 'half and half' for 20 bucks," he said. "It just depends how bad she needs the money and how much you want to barter with her."
Detective Dan and I are standing at the temporary command post, where police had set up a van behind a vacant building to house and begin processing the prostitutes picked up in the sweep. "Come on, let's go for a ride," he says. "We'll see what's going on with the guys out there."
Our intent is to check on the police officers posing as johns for this operation. But, we get into it a little deeper when we see Shauna (not her real name), standing across from a car in which another woman, whom Shauna said is her sister, is reclining on the passenger side.
"What are you guys doing?" Shauna asks. "It's his bachelor party," Dan says, motioning toward me. "We're looking to have a little party at our place over on the East Side. Do you want to party with us?"
Uncertain what is going to happen and not wanting to screw up a potential arrest, I slide my left hand under my leg so Shauna can't see my wedding ring. What bachelor wears a ring to his bachelor party?
Detective Dan engages Shauna in a discussion / negotiation. In a few minutes, she agrees to have sex with both of us for $50. "Hop in," he says to Shauna. Then he looks at me and says, "Get out and let her sit between us."
During afternoon operations on the South Side, police put female decoys out on the street and wait for johns to approach them. It seldom takes long. The female officers are not equipped with microphones or radio transmitters and almost always unarmed.Page 1 of 4 (view all on one page)
Shaun(a) said: Um... that statement was not directed towards you, it was an answer to Cozen's question! For the record I never said my morals were better than anybody elses'. Question answered!
eaglescout said: never said that shauna. not sure where you're getting that. care to take a second shot at actually answering my question?
Shaun(a) said: According to you, man decides it based on what kind of a mood he is in that particular day.
eaglescout said: shauna, what makes your morals more moral than my morals?
Cozen Beguile said: Who decides the way of life?
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