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‘Vice TV’ Gives Hookers and Johns Their 15 Minutes of Shame

TIMES STAFF WRITER

When it comes to urban ills, this Central Valley city has had its share. Blighted apartment buildings. Taggers run amok. Prostitutes on the prowl.

But now Stockton has borrowed a centuries-old weapon in the battle against civic dysfunction. Where police and municipal managers come up short, Stockton has turned to public shame.

At the start of each month, the city’s cable TV channel serves as a modern-day pillory, airing the mug shots, names and arrest dates of convicted prostitutes and their customers. Another TV program targets adults busted for scrawling graffiti.

Now city leaders are pushing to add slumlords to the list of the shamed. This month, the City Council began considering a new cable offering dubbed “Blight TV.” Backers hope old-fashioned disgrace--delivered with televised pictures of paint-peeling duplexes, disheveled tenements and the names of wayward property owners--will work where more conventional enforcement methods have not.

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Stockton is among a few U.S. cities, from Miami to Spokane, Wash., using public shame to attack crime.

Though controversial, the TV programs have bolstered the spirits of many homeowners in Stockton’s urban core, a region largely abandoned over the past 30 years as the city burst its boundaries with sprawling new housing tracts and shopping centers.

“In the ‘70s, things seemed to turn for the worst, with gangs and graffiti and prostitution,” said Pauline Ramirez, a lifelong Stockton resident. “But you hardly see it anymore.”

Prostitution arrests in the city of 240,000 dropped 7% in 1998, the year after its “Vice TV” program started. Before the TV program, about 60% of the customers were from Stockton. Now, with the prospect of having their photo emblazoned on community TV, locals have dropped to 40% of the total, said Officer Roseann Richardson. And of those arrested, she added, “we’ve heard lots of concern about being on ‘Vice TV.’ ”

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But the effort to use shame as a tool against civic disobedience has critics worried that Stockton is treading on dangerous turf.

“It’s pretty pathetic,” Jerry Gleeson, San Joaquin County’s public defender, said from his downtown Stockton office. “I’m not very comfortable with this idea of holding people up to ridicule. I don’t see the value in it.”

Alan Schlosser, managing attorney of the American Civil Liberties Union of Northern California, said that publicizing the particulars of those convicted goes above and beyond the punishment permitted by state lawmakers. “It’s the state Legislature’s job to set the parameters for punishment,” he said. “This operates completely outside that.”

Stockton city leaders brush aside the criticism. All you have to do, they tell naysayers, is take a walk in our neighborhoods to see where we’re coming from.

Like so many other older cities, Stockton was hit hard by flight from its central heart during the 1960s and ‘70s. Though the city retains a number of leafy and lovely older neighborhoods, replete with well-maintained Victorians and Craftsman homes, the housing stock around the downtown business district was nearly abandoned by live-in owners. Since then, many absentee landlords have let their properties sag.

In the wake of that shift, gangs flourished and graffiti proliferated. Prostitutes flocked to West Way, a major thoroughfare leading into the city.

In recent years, the City Council has claimed several victories against such problems. New development has been attracted to downtown, and the business district has been spruced up. The city is embracing its waterfront on the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta by building a new shoreline park. It also recently got the nod from the San Francisco 49ers as home for the team’s summer training camp.

To curb graffiti, the city set up an anti-graffiti team that moves in quickly to paint over the work of taggers. City leaders say gang activity has been hemmed in with more focused police work and the introduction of peace negotiators to keep a lid on violence.

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The city also created a new department to aggressively tackle problems with downtown housing. Currently, more than 1,500 properties have been tagged for violations of city housing code.

That land war has been aided, council members believe, by the psychological blitz delivered by its anti-vice TV programs.

“We’ve had to get tough,” said Councilwoman Ann Johnston. “We’re living in it. And we won’t put up with it any longer.”

Johnston imported the idea for “Vice TV” two years ago, after seeing news accounts about a similar program during a trip to Kansas City. Miami and Boston have undertaken like-minded efforts to curb prostitution.

Public disgrace also has been used for problems ranging from unlicensed dogs to public drunks and shoplifting. A few years ago, leaders in a small Massachusetts town were reading the names of unlicensed dogs over cable TV to prod their owners. Some judges across the country have taken to meting out public humiliation as part of sentencing. One tactic is to have shoplifters wear sandwich-board signs in front of merchants they ripped off.

The use of shame on slumlords also has been tried. In Framingham, Mass., the city put up banners announcing the owner’s name of any property that is condemned and boarded up. Stockton introduced a similar program in 1997, but so far only one apartment house has been posted.

Warren Wong, a local architect and Stockton resident for most of his 75 years, owns that very building on Sutter Street, right between a funeral home and God’s Throne Baptist Church. City officials said the apartment house has been a problem for more than a decade, and their patience has worn thin.

Wong bristled over being singled out by the city. He blamed his building’s problems on bad luck and the downturn in the city’s fortunes. Though he vows to soon spend more than $1 million to get it repaired, Wong says the stigma attached to his structure makes getting a loan tough.

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“It’s like overkill,” he said of the proposal to launch a “Blight TV” program. “It’s scapegoating. Because of their own inadequacies in the city, they want to make other people look bad instead of themselves and their government. Am I what they call a slum landlord? I’m trying to repair something.”

There remain a few snags before pictures of problem properties start popping up on TV. The city attorney has qualms about putting the names of property owners on TV, suggesting it might lead to lawsuits. But several council members remain determined to see the program go forward, naming names.

“These will only be extreme cases where everything else has failed,” said Councilman Victor Mow. “This is a last resort kind of thing. It’s always a tough call, but I think the public good outweighs the negatives at this point.”


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