Street Life

One reporter pursues one crack-addicted Hollywood hooker in order to ask one not-so-simple question: Why?

The girl I'm watching now on the corner of Fillmore Street and Federal has none of these characteristics. At 7 in the evening, she struts around with a small wallet and keys in her hand. Her jeans shorts look deliberately frayed, and her curly black hair is styled in a loose ponytail. She's wearing a wristwatch, and her toenails are painted. To anyone who knows what to look for, she's obviously a cop.

In the span of five minutes, a cab, a black El Camino, and a Lincoln Town Car pull up to the curb to check out the undercover officer. She chats with each driver from her post on the curb. All three pull away, but the cab circles back and calls something out to her. She signals to him to go around the block once more. Then she walks over to me and asks me how I'm doing, if I'm waiting for someone. I tell her I'm meeting a friend. Who I'm really meeting is Lt. Richy Allen of Hollywood P.D.'s Crime Suppression Unit. Allen has invited me along to observe tonight's reverse sting, in which she is the bait.

But I don't tell her that. Allen is running late, and I want to watch her do her job. We comment on the cold snap, and she drifts back to the corner. While I'm waiting, a woman exits a corner bar and asks me if I want a real story.

"My brother was hooked on crack. What he went through..." she shakes her head and touches my arm in earnest. "He had me working the streets for money. His own sister, a prostitute," she tells me. When I ask her for her name and number, she takes a step away from me, laughs as if embarrassed. All she'll give me is her first name. Veronika. "With a K," she adds, and disappears back into the bar.

Allen, age 40, arrives dressed in plain clothes and praising the meat loaf dinner he just had at the Entrada Motel. After we exchange hellos, we talk about Hollywood's stab at cleaning up Federal Highway. The city's police department began its prostitution stings about a year and a half ago, and the department conducts them once, sometimes twice a month. "If we did it every night, we'd be fried," says Allen. We stand beside a spire-tipped fence and watch as the undercover officer attracts car after car.

Hollywood police report arrests for prostitution dropped from 798 in 1999 to 315 in 2000. Allen credits the drop in arrests to the heavy enforcement of stings in 1999. "There's less prostitutes, less johns. It's not that we don't still have it, we certainly do, but it's declined since 1999," Allen explains. Last year 83 percent of those arrested were white, 16 percent were black. Only 30 percent of those busted were women. The remaining 70 were men, all of whom were looking for some action.

In years past, Hollywood police concentrated more on arresting hookers, with cops posing as johns soliciting sex. "We said, "Wait a second. This is a two-party crime. The guys are just as much at fault,'" Allen recalls. In 1999 his unit shifted its emphasis to reverse stings. "These girls are drug addicts, but these guys, they should know better," Allen declares. Those men who don't wind up with an arrest record, hundreds of dollars in fines, and an impounded vehicle.

Florida statutes allow police to seize cars used to solicit prostitutes or drugs. Car owners can retrieve their vehicles from the police after paying a $500 fine and towing and court costs. Tampa, St. Petersburg, and West Palm Beach have ordinances similar to Hollywood's.

"What we do is very labor intensive for us," Allen relates. "Pulling officers off the road, administrative costs. We use these fees to offset those costs."

We cross the street and climb into Allen's SUV, the back of which brims with more than $3000 worth of surveillance equipment purchased with proceeds from drug sales, money the police have confiscated from law breakers. Female officers are wired with body microphones, and a special radio allows Allen to listen to each conversation with a prospective john. Everything is audio- and videotaped from an undercover vehicle parked nearby.

Despite the state-of-the-art technology, the sting can be difficult. Allen fiddles with the frequency on his radio. We're parked across the street from his undercover officer, but her voice is garbled and the reception is full of static.

"It's not like Mission: Impossiblewhere they have bugs that work great," says Allen. "You'll be 30 feet away, and all you hear is cccccrrrrrrrrkkkkkkkkkk." He flips another switch and the conversation comes in more clearly. "That's better."

The cabby is back, and while Allen and I have missed his proposition, the rest of the patrol hasn't. Once they get the signal from their undercover officer -- a predetermined word or sentence -- nearly a dozen cops materialize in about two seconds. Allen tells me they've been close by all along, but to me, they appear like urban magic. The cops aren't there. And then they are.

"Pleeaaaaseee, sir. Pleeeeeaaaassse," the cab driver pleads as he's searched for firearms or drugs by a plainclothes man. "I'm just joking," he wails. "I was joking." The cops go about their business unfazed. Everyone arrested gets hauled over for processing to the makeshift command post at Hollywood's Police Benevolent Association Hall. Allen says the booking process is tedious, with at least half a dozen forms to fill out, not including affidavits or searches for outstanding warrants. Usually a sting begins in the late afternoon and rolls on until about 11:30 p.m., with an average of 20 or so arrested. At 8:15 this evening, the count is up to 11.

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