Prostitutes Try to Avoid Valley Vice Crackdown

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Like any good businesswoman, Machelle adapts.

A hooker by trade, she has switched locations and working hours--and is one of a growing number of prostitutes who have changed the way they sell sex after a city crackdown that began nearly 18 months ago.

Convicted prostitutes are now banned from some sections of Sunset and Sepulveda boulevards--traditional working areas in Hollywood and the San Fernando Valley. Under the city's so-called mapping program, they face arrest for simply standing on the sidewalk or talking to motorists on selected streets throughout Los Angeles.

Business owners weary of the illicit trade in those neighborhoods say the new law has dramatically reduced the number of hookers who used to congregate on nearby corners.

But reflecting the intractability of the world's oldest profession--and the call for even tougher laws--Machelle and scores of others have simply moved to other neighborhoods.

Machelle, for example, now works the corner of Winnetka Avenue and Roscoe Boulevard, a West Valley corner not covered by the restrictions in the city's mapping program. In the Valley, the restrictions are in effect between 5 p.m. and 6 a.m. So as an added precaution, Machelle works days.

"I make three times as much at night," said the gregarious 20-year-old. Even so, she earns $200 to $250 a day from a steady flow of clients who apparently have also adapted to the mapping program.

Los Angeles police vice officers in the Valley are working to close some of the loopholes, such as extending the restrictions to 24 hours a day--now the practice in Hollywood.

And awaiting Gov. Pete Wilson's signature is a controversial state bill that would allow police to arrest anyone loitering on public property with the intent to sell sex or drugs. The legislation is far broader than the mapping program, which applies only to convicted hookers and restricts their behavior on selected streets.

The law is strongly opposed by the American Civil Liberties Union on constitutional grounds. The ACLU had previously voiced concerns over the city's mapping program.

"This bill gives the police the license to arrest people when there is no probable cause that they are engaged in a criminal act," said Francisco Lobaco, legislative director for the California chapter of the ACLU. "It ensnares the innocent as well as the potentially guilty."

State Assemblyman Richard Katz (D-Sylmar), the bill's author, admits his far-reaching legislation cannot eliminate prostitution. Police say the criminal justice system is now so overcrowded--the result of scores of new crime laws and shrinking budgets--that misdemeanor violators, including prostitutes, seldom serve full sentences.

Even so, said Katz, the new law will "give cops and neighborhood groups the ability to fight back."

Passage of the legislation is also a credit to the persistence of residents in Hollywood and the Valley, who have triggered this latest round in the battle against streetwalking. They have long complained about the traffic, crime and other troubles that accompany prostitution.

"I'm not the most attractive woman in the world," said resident Beverly Lange, who until last month lived in an apartment on Sepulveda Boulevard, just south of Vanowen Street. "I'm overweight, I'm older--yet cars will pull over to the curb and proposition me. . . . That's why this anti-loitering bill is important to me."

In the past, the difficulty in arresting prostitutes has always been the legal requirement that they must solicit a police officer, be caught in the act or agree to sex for money. Veteran prostitutes had learned to avoid those circumstances.

So in the spring of 1993, the Los Angeles city attorney's office introduced the mapping program in Hollywood, for the first time allowing police to arrest convicted prostitutes for appearing to solicit customers.

Roughly a year later, the program was introduced in the Valley. And so far, residents and business owners say the crackdown has reduced streetwalking on portions of Sherman Way, Sepulveda, Reseda and Lankershim boulevards that for years had attracted prostitutes and their customers.

"The police are doing a dynamite job at enforcing the program," said Harold Peskin, general manager of a Carriage Inn hotel on Sepulveda Boulevard in Sherman Oaks. "If you look at Sepulveda as a whole, arrests are way down."

Residents agree.

"It has cut the traffic down to one-tenth of what it was before," said Lange, whose apartment overlooks Sepulveda. "It used to be that seven to 10 girls would gather out there at a time. But now, if you see one or two it's a lot."

So far in the Valley, more than 400 prostitutes have been put on restriction under the mapping program. At least 50 of them have been rearrested for violating its conditions, which also prohibit accepting rides and sitting in parked cars with motorists.

"We still make arrests," said LAPD Sgt. Carl Frank, who heads the vice squad at the North Hollywood Division. "But I defy anyone to find the blatant type of prostitution that was prevalent up to two years ago."

In the West Valley, LAPD Sgt. John C. Staugaard agreed. "It has been tremendously effective" in keeping prostitutes off main streets.

But Staugaard and others acknowledge the problem is far from being solved.

To avoid arrest, for example, some hookers have abandoned profitable business strips in favor of nearby residential neighborhoods.

Vecky Milliken and her family are among those suffering the consequences.

For two months, the Millikens have been awakened by the late-night shouts--and screams--of half a dozen or so hookers who have started working in their Winnetka neighborhood, located just outside the mapping program boundaries.

"At 2 or 3 in the morning they'll be fighting with their pimps over the money," Milliken said from the doorway of her apartment on the corner of Oso Avenue and Cohasset Street.

Last month, Milliken said, a neighbor and his two daughters moved to Simi Valley to escape the vice and violence. She said she, too, plans to flee. "It's upsetting because I have two small children," she said.

And though the mapping program has made it easier to arrest prostitutes, the county jail system is too crowded to house them.

As a result, hookers who have been arrested for violating the mapping law restrictions are often back on the street after serving only a fraction of their sentences. Instead of spending 180 days in jail, for example, some prostitutes are released after 15 days, police say.

"It does get frustrating," said LAPD Officer Dave DiMeglio, who works the vice unit at West Valley. "Mapping helps, but I don't think it's the solution."

On a recent morning, DiMeglio's team nabbed Machelle as she stepped out of a van stopped at Roscoe Boulevard and Winnetka Avenue--her third arrest since receiving her mapping restrictions.

"I think they should just leave me alone because I don't hurt nobody," said Machelle, sitting in the cramped quarters of the West Valley vice room.

DiMeglio countered, "I think she should stay off the streets. We get complaints about her all the time."

By the time she was released four hours later, Machelle had already cooked up a new plan.

"I'm going to go make some money," she said with a grin. "I'm going to go up to Parthenia. The cops don't know me there, yet."

Eight days later, Machelle was arrested again in the West Valley.

Other prostitutes say they haven't bothered altering their work habits, choosing instead to work in defiance of the mapping program.

"That map means nothing to me. I can't even find it; in fact I think I threw it away in the trash," said a 37-year-old prostitute from Reseda. "If the cops get me again then they get me again. . . . I'm going to do what I want to do."

Police in the Valley, nonetheless, want to broaden mapping restrictions.

Local vice officers have begun collecting evidence needed to extend mapping restrictions to 24 hours a day and to add more Valley streets. A local judge must approve the changes.

The extended hours will make it easier for police to arrest hookers like Machelle who have learned to work around the current rules by working days, police say.

In the West Valley, for example, vice officers made at least 130 daytime arrests during August and September, said LAPD Officer Wayne Devey, who is in charge of the program at West Valley. Roughly half were prostitutes who had been placed on the mapping program.

Devey said he would like to extend the mapping program to new stretches of Roscoe and Topanga Canyon boulevards, Saticoy and Vanowen streets, and Oso and White Oak avenues.

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Restricted Area

Convicted prostitutes in the San Fernando Valley are restricted from selected streets between 5 p.m. and 6 a.m. in a city program aimed at curbing the illegal sale of sex. Under the city's so-called mapping program, convicted prostitutes can be arrested on certain streets for talking, soliciting or accepting rides from motorists. They are also forbidden from sitting in a parked car with a motorist or loitering. Police are seeking to extend the restrictions to apply 24 hours a day and to add additional streets.

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