Last month, the Portland City Council officially approved establishment of an 82nd Avenue Prostitution Advisory Committee. The move received the almost unanimous endorsement of a once-divided community.
The committee, to be composed of law enforcement, neighborhood, business and social service representatives, is part of a strategy to deal with the problem of prostitution. It combines stepped-up law enforcement, particularly against pimps and “johns,” with counseling, addiction treatment, job training and other programs to help prostitutes reform themselves. It follows Mayor Tom Potter and the Council’s abolition of Drug- and Prostitution-Free Zones, once a key law enforcement tool, in 2007, and the surge in prostitution activity on Northeast and Southeast 82nd Avenue that followed this.
East Precinct commander Mike Crebs, a booster of the current approach, called it “amazing. I’ve been a police officer for 17 years, and I’ve never seen such support. This is a solution to prostitution not only on 82nd Avenue, but citywide.” He cautioned that the city should involve other neighborhoods if the problem spreads or migrates. “The people in Montavilla and Madison South say they want something done,” he said.
Indeed. Following the demise of the Prostitution-Free Zone, the ad hoc Montavilla Community in Action coalition circulated petitions and held marches and demonstrations to have it reinstated. When Potter came to the Montavilla Community Center to announce his strategy, he was booed from the audience. While the two established neighborhood groups and the 82nd Avenue Business Association pledged to work with the proposed strategy, Community in Action steadfastly called for reinstatement of the zone.
Thus it represented a dramatic turn when Community in Action leader Bruce Wong lent his endorsement to the current effort last month. Under current efforts, “Prostitution has certainly decreased,” he said. “I hope we can keep moving forward against the johns and the pimps.” He warned, “It will take great effort to keep this from spreading to other neighborhoods.” Wong later told the Star that he was now working through the Montavilla Neighborhood Association, and that he no longer considered reviving the Zone to be necessary.
Potter told Wong, “I appreciate the work of the neighborhoods. We haven’t always seen eye-to-eye, but we share the same objectives.”
Wong replied, “I appreciate your coming out to address us. It was very contentious, but I appreciate your graciousness.”
Others endorsed the proposal as well. Lila Lee of the Council for Prostitution Alternatives said, “I want to thank the city for stepping up treatment for women. We need a place where women can come and talk about their experiences: horrific childhoods, addictions, economic problems.” She called on the city to “put more pressure on johns and pimps to reduce demand.”
The ordinance said the committee should include two police officers, one representative each from the Lents, Madison South and Montavilla neighborhood associations, two representatives from the 82nd Avenue of Roses Business Association, and one each from the Neighborhood Crime Prevention Program and the Multnomah County District Attorney’s Office.
The only negative comments came from two representatives the 82ndCares Coalition. Through leaflets and web sites they have called for changing social and economic conditions that lead to prostitution. Although the group has not explicitly called for legalization of prostitution, it has been critical of any steps that interfere with its practice, including law enforcement aimed at “johns.”
Emi Koyama told Council, “While we appreciate the attention this issue is receiving, we’re concerned about the emphasis on enforcement rather than social and economic issues. Prostitution is a reflection of poverty and social conditions.”
Chenis Remines, who described herself as a Portland Community College student who has friends who are prostitutes, said the current approach showed a “lack of social awareness” and furthered “the stigma of prostitution. I’m scared listening to the list of people who will be on this committee. It doesn’t make me feel safe. You need a more diverse group.” She also said members should be required to undergo training to acquaint them with the issues prostitutes face. “This is related to human rights,” she said.
Commissioner Dan Saltzman said the resolution spelled the minimum representation the committee must have, which was “by no means the limit.” Lee suggested adding a former prostitute.
Dawn Rasmussen of the Save 82nd Avenue Coalition and Madison South said that the purpose of the committee was “to start a conversation, not to vilify anyone.” She noted that a forum hosted by the Montavilla neighborhood had produced “a lot of ideas,” including some that seemed to reflect 82ndCares philosophy.
Commissioner Randy Leonard reminded those present that he has consistently opposed the Zones. “It was not just because of civil-rights concerns, but operationally it didn’t make sense to me,” he said. It didn’t stop drug trafficking or prostitution; at most it moved it from place to place, he said. The current direction is “a human approach to a problem that had been characterized as bad people doing harm to neighborhoods. This is not just taking offenders out of the neighborhoods, but nudging them toward social services. Some of these people have completely dropped out of the criminal justice system.”
Leonard added, “I can’t say enough about Mike Reese, uh, Crebs.” (Reese is Central Precinct commander.) Leonard said he gets the two mixed up because “both are problem-solvers.”
Commissioner Nick Fish said he found the neighborhood volunteers to be “very responsible, accessible and committed, what I’ve come to expect from this community.” He spoke out pimps’ practice of recruiting from local high schools. “What consenting adults choose to do is very different from young girls being recruited” by pimps exploiting their “low self-esteem. This is a deplorable, ugly aspect of this problem that we should address.”
Commissioner and Mayor-elect Sam Adams emphasized the need to monitor the spread of the problem. “We know that when we squeeze the balloon it goes to other areas,” he said. “I’m impressed with the neighborhood associations speaking for a complete solution; that hasn’t always been the sentiment.”
Potter said that all the public comments were “worthy of consideration. It’s so important to have the community engaged in the process. It has been controversial and it did get out of hand.” Prostitution is “not a matter between consenting adults; it’s white slavery.” He added, “We know we can always push crime around. This is not just locking people up and throwing the key away, but solving the problem. Thank you, Commander Crebs. Thank you, community.”