Sgt. Joseph Lanciano, a 22-year veteran of the Philadelphia Police Department’s Citywide Vice Enforcement Unit, took note of a young woman with dyed red hair, a turquoise halter top and a green leg brace as she stood in the shade along Kensington Avenue.
“That’s a real one right there,” he said.
Coupled with some degree of wide-eyed innocence, her leg brace seemed more like a curse than an orthotic.
“We did move you before, right?” Lanciano asked. “Come on, babe. Just give us a couple more hours.”
Press-friendly sting operation
On Thursday, Lanciano’s unit conducted a targeted sting operation against prostitution in Kensington.
The effort was intended to dispel the notion that prostitution is a victimless crime, and bolster efforts aimed at improving the quality of life along the Kensington Avenue corridor.
On the 3500-block of Kensington Ave., several undercover female police officers posed as prostitutes during the late morning and early afternoon hours.
A staging area set up at nearby Harrowgate Plaza enabled police officers to immediately process alleged offenders before transporting them to the Roundhouse.
But there was a new wrinkle to this operation: In addition to inviting local media to broadcast images of the perpetrators being arrested, police planned to impound the customers’ cars.
“We’re prepared to articulate that they used the car in the commission of crime, and the people we arrest will have to go through the court system to try to get it back,” Lanciano said.
How it played out
On the street, Lanciano sat at the ready in his unmarked Ford Taurus, monitoring the radio.
The standard operating procedure for these stings involves a “spotter” dressed in elaborate street garb to keep an eye on the police decoys and broadcast information to other unmarked units waiting nearby.
On Thursday, the spotter reported that a green Lincoln Town Car was approaching one of the decoys, who just happened to have a reputation for being among Vice’s best in these situations.
When the decoy signalled that a solicitation had allegedly been made, the spotter exhorted officers to “Come and get it, come and get it!”
With that, several plainclothes officers — accompanied by one uniformed officer for purposes of recognition — swooped in and arrested the offender, a large man wearing matching camouflage shorts and tank top.
The offender, along with his vehicle, was then transported a few blocks to the staging area for processing by police and shaming by camera crews from local media outlets.
Returning to his position on the corner, Lanciano was pleased that his officers are getting activity.
Asked if word gets out about the police activity, thereby drying up business, Lanciano observed that each potential customer acts independently. The working girls, however, could be a different story.
“She could tell the other girls that vice is out here working,” he said in reference to the woman with the leg brace, who has returned, this time suggestively devouring an ice pop. Rolling down the window, Lanciano issued a warning.
“If you get into anybody’s car, we’re going to arrest you, him and the car,” he told her, quickly rolling up the window. “This is what’s on Kensington Ave.”
After making a provocative gesture to man in a convertible, she returned her attention to the occupants of the Taurus, giving them an enthusiastic lecture about the production and consumption of crack cocaine.
In spite of the underlying depravity of the situation, the interaction between working girl and working police is entertaining.
“I guess I’m going to have to move, eh?” Lanciano said.
Not just Kensington Ave.
While police recognize that this corridor is the preeminent locale for patronizing a prostitute, there are several other sites across the city with similar reputations.
Portions of 12th Street in Center City are trouble spots for vice cops. In South Philadelphia, South. Broad Street and Snyder Avenue have occasional problems. In Northwest Philadelphia, the Germantown Avenue corridor, and Germantown’s Penn-Knox section have had issues.
“In the city, any major thoroughfare has the potential to have men and women selling their bodies for sex,” Lanciano observed.
In addition to street prostitution, Vice has to worry about massage parlors, escort services and websites like Craigslist and backpages.com.
Lanciano was then interrupted by his cell phone. The redhead was walking among the decoys. Lanciano told the spotter that as long as no interference was taking place, the decoys should just try to ignore her.
The laissez-faire approach does not work. She continued to disturb the decoys, causing a ruckus that eventually forced police to detain her and transport her away from the site.
Results of the sting
By operation’s end, six men ranging in age from 35 to 69 were arrested. Some were married, some were unemployed. Six cars, including a cab, were impounded. Police confiscated $2,000 in cash, along with a quantity of Viagra.
Each suspect will be charged with patronizing prostitution, a misdemeanor. If they have a clean criminal record, they will face community service and a fine.
Lt. Derrick Wood, commanding officer of Vice, maintained that such arrests often have somewhat of a deterrent effect.
“Usually, we arrest them the first time, we won’t arrest them again,” he said of the johns, conceding that arrests do little to discourage the prostitutes themselves.
Interview with a decoy
After returning to the Harrowgate Plaza staging area, NewsWorks asked the notable decoy the trick to turning a trick.
Beyond black stretch pants and a sheer white tank-top that made the pink brassiere underneath visible halfway down Glenwood Avenue, she said knowing the work environment was critical to garnering the $50 offer she’d received less than an hour earlier.
“It’s making sure that you fit in,” she said, “and acting like you belong.”