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'Dear John' Letters: New Tool to Fight Prostitution

Oakland to become the first California city to use a letter-writing campaign to combat the sex trade

They come every night, the anonymous men in their anonymous cars, looking to pay a girl for sex.

And to residents of the San Antonio neighborhood of East Oakland, they all have the same name: John.

Neighbors are preparing to launch a major letter-writing campaign targeting Johns – individuals, mostly men, who purchase the services of prostitutes. Residents hope that by stripping away the anonymity of the exchange, Johns will stay away from the area.

Residents send police identifying information about cars they suspect are driven by Johns; in turn, police send a letter to the owners of each car, warning the individuals of the many consequences of purchasing sex.

“The idea is to communicate to them that what they’re doing is not a secret and that people are watching them,” said Andy Nelson, an organizer for the East Bay Asian Youth Center. “It’s a way to shame them.”

When the campaign launches in mid-July, Oakland will become the first city in California to employ the strategy, which has been used in Atlanta and Portland, among other major cities.

It is one of several recent efforts residents have made to stem the sex trade in the neighborhood. Earlier this year, residents held a march and a rally, and this fall, they're planning to work with educators to help them identify girs who may be involved in prostitution. At a time when police departments and service providers are seeing their budgets slashed, organizers and police say such collaborative and multi-pronged approaches have become essential in the fight against prostitution.

The "Dear John" campaign will supplement the efforts of the Oakland Police Department, which has been struggling lately to meet residents’ demands to clamp down on prostitution along International Boulevard, also known as “the Track,” due to dwindling staffing levels and resources.

Police have been using problem-solving officers in the neighborhood to increase the number and frequency of sting operations, but the lack of female undercover officers in the male-dominated department has resulted in few stings targeting Johns. The result is that police have arrested more prostitutes than customers.

“In order to make John arrests in mass numbers, you have to have female (undercover) officers out there,” said spokeswoman Holly Joshi, who’s charged with recruiting and training female officers for the vice operations. “You can’t really do it with surveillance. That’s not the ideal way because you don’t want the young girls to get in the car.”

Oakland is not the only Bay Area city with an interest in the campaign. In March, a Vallejo task force on prostitution proposed the idea to help combat the city’s burgeoning sex trade.

In recent years, Vallejo, which has lost about 40 percent of its police force since filing for bankruptcy in 2008, has become a destination for prostitution, prompting weekly and biweekly walks and citizen patrols. The litigation-leery city has been waiting on a blessing from the attorney general’s office before launching a “Dear John” campaign. John Allen, an organizer for the group Fighting Back, which is a part of the city prostitution task force, said the city would likely follow Oakland's example.

“If they have any success then we’ll probably use it as well,” he said.

EBAYC, the organization that is spearheading the effort, is planning to train residents and begin mailing forms to neighbors in mid-July. Nelson said the forms will ask residents for license plate numbers, dates, times and locations. Additional forms and collection boxes will be placed inside local businesses, and residents will have the option of remaining anonymous.

After receiving the forms from EBAYC, the police department will generate letters to the registered owner of each car. The letter will inform drivers when their cars were spotted in the neighborhood, and warn them of the various consequences of soliciting prostitutes, including jail time, the risk of diseases and contributing to the exploitation of trafficked women and children. Nelson said the city has agreed to pay the postage. The campaign is expected to continue through September.

Because residents are often concerned about retaliation from pimps, Nelson said the anonymous forms are a safe way for residents to fight back. For many residents, identifying the Johns should be easy.

 “See that car?” asked Dung Tran, a parent organizer for EBAYC, on a recent weekday night. She pointed out her apartment window toward a white sedan parked outside a hair salon. “I see that car all time. I see you.”

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