Concerned that the street-corner sex trade is taking over some Baltimore neighborhoods, police have begun an all-out offensive to combat the menace, targeting women and men in sometimes elaborate undercover stings.
Male customers have been hauled from their cars when they sought sex from female police officers dressed in shorts and halter tops. Women prostitutes have been rounded up and chained in public as residents gather for the evening spectacle.
Police in the Southern District -- where the problem is particularly acute -- have arrested more than 275 people since April in prostitution-related offenses. And now they are pushing for a controversial law that would let them seize cars from men.
Yesterday afternoon, officers fanned out again along Washington Boulevard, where women -- many addicted to crack cocaine -- line up waiting for cars to slow and customers to pick them up.
One was a 30-year-old delivery man who works in Beltsville and was spotted by two undercover officers near Carroll Park offering a ride to a woman who has been arrested twice in the past two months.
Police followed the man's black 1994 Volkswagen to a convenience store and to the back parking lot of an industrial park near the Baltimore County line, where officers said they watched the couple engage in a sex act.
Officer Van Watson, watching from a secluded hill near the car, pounced on the hood and arrested the man and woman. Both were charged with performing a perverted sex act.
Typical of men arrested on prostitution charges, the accused asked the officer how long he would be in jail, whether they would tell his wife and what would happen to his car.
"Johns have more to lose," said Officer Greg Boris, who helped in yesterday's bust. "They say, 'My wife will divorce me. It's my girlfriend's car.' I tell them, 'Why didn't you think of that before you came out here?' "
Such questions are exactly why Southern District Lt. Barry Baker and state Del. Timothy D. Murphy are trying to push the bill through Annapolis that would allow police to seize cars, as they do now with drug dealers.
"If we snatch the auto, the john is going to be hard-pressed to explain to his significant other where the family van is," Mr. Murphy said. "I see that as a significant deterrent."
But opponents, such as Del. Joseph F. Vallario, chairman of the judiciary committee, said his colleagues are reluctant to broaden police powers for minor charges.
"We just didn't think that solicitation arose to the category of confiscating cars," Mr. Vallario said. "I think what they ought to do is prosecute the laws that are on the books a little more."
The Prince George's County Democrat said he would rather allow police to seize cars used in drive-by shootings. Prostitution, the delegate said, is "basically a voluntary crime. The woman says she wants to do it and the man says he wants pay for it."
Just how many people are involved became evident one cold Friday evening in late September in the Pratt-Monroe neighborhood, where police made several busts in a few hours.
One was a 33-year-old man who pulled his decade-old Honda hatchback up the the curb near McHenry Street and Fulton Avenue and briefly chatted to a blond woman dressed in shorts and a ragged cut-off sweat shirt.
A few minutes later, Southern District Lt. Barry Baker swept in and arrested the man. "I'm just on my way home to my wife," he pleaded.
The numbers can be staggering. In the Southern District alone -- in Brooklyn, Curtis Bay, Pratt-Monroe and Pigtown -- officers have arrested 286 prostitutes and customers since April. During one week in September, Southeastern District officers arrested 40 people on sex charges -- 28 men and 12 women -- around Patterson Park, Fells Point and Canton.
Lieutenant Baker said that while exact numbers are unavailable, most of the cases that have gone to trial have resulted in convictions. Sentences have ranged from being suspended to a TC year in jail -- the maximum.
The proposed law to seize cars from male customers is one of many proposals to rid communities of prostitutes. Fed up homeowners in Baltimore have traced male customers by recording their license plate numbers and chased prostitutes away with "pooch patrols."
Maj. Kathleen T. Patek, the commander of the Southern District, ordered her officers to ticket drivers who stop and talk to known prostitutes. Then, she sends a letter to their homes explaining why they were stopped.
And the major hangs a poster throughout the area: "From one working to woman to another," it reads. "My business is law enforcement. Your business is prostitution. I protect the public. You endanger the health and safety of our community."
In Baltimore's Southeastern District, Maj. John E. Gavrilis has the names of all men and women arrested on prostitution charges published in a community newspaper.
In Washington, police barricade streets to keep people from repeatedly circling blocks, and six months ago, they started to seize cars from the men who pick up women.
But Deputy Police Chief Charles R. Bacon Jr. said he is not sure the department "is getting the best bang for its buck." He noted that during one sting last week, police seized only three cars.
Anything would be a relief to Baltimore resident Ann Ebberts, who runs a small convenience store in the 300 block of S. Monroe St. She said delivery people can't get into her business without being solicited.
One man, said Mrs. Ebberts' husband, Frank, walked into the store and asked for change for a $20 bill. "He walked out and guess who he hooked with?" he said. "I gave him change so he could pay for a $15 trick."
Gladys Wheatley, a 65-year-old South Mount Street resident, says that prostitutes bang on her door and windows. "It's torment," she said. "You look out in the morning, you see them. You look out at night, you see them. You look out during the day, you see them."
A week after Southern District officers targeted men, they swept through several neighborhoods and arrested 28 prostitutes -- many of them drug users who charge between $15 and $25 for sex -- usually the going price for several doses of cocaine or heroin.
Police congregated in back of a business park off Western Avenue, near an exit to I-95, and invited community members to watch. Police officers dressed as bikers, business men and blue-collar workers drove out and picked up women.
They drove them back to the staging area, where they arrested them as residents watched and handcuffed them to an iron railing while they filled out their paperwork.
The public show seemed to embarrass the women, who at first got mad, then hid their faces from the small crowd and television cameras. "That's the whole idea," said Lieutenant Baker.
Their retorts were similar to what the men had to say on the reverse sting conducted earlier in the week.
"I was going shopping and nothing else," one shouted. "It's not fair, I was going to my house," another said.
"Prostitution has been going on since the Middle Ages," said Washington's Deputy Chief Bacon. "I don't know if we'll stop it this week or next week."