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Above the clatter of cops pounding out arrest reports, Sgt. Frank Morgan hears one of the seven prostitutes shackled before him mutter the word “fuck.”
“Hey! No cursing, ladies!” Morgan scolds.
“Sorry, sorry…” the young woman replies.
Having restored order once again, Morgan resumes filling out a form citing one of them for an offense far more salacious than having a mouth that needs to be washed out with soap.
Morgan is camped in the Snyder Community Room in the police department’s 3rd District (3D) with half a dozen other weary officers in the wee morning hours of Saturday, March 28. The sting earlier that nightfemale officers posing as prostitutes and males posing as johnsnetted 17 arrests of real johns and real prostitutes. It was a quick, clean, almost glitch-free operation, but its byproducta haystack of paperworkwill keep them busy for hours longer than the operation itself took.
As the cops type and type, the johns silently ferment in their own regret as they sit in the cellblock at the other end of the building. The prostitutes have their regrets, too.
“Nicole,” says one girl, called “Trigger.” “We shoulda gone to the club.”
“We shoulda gone out,” Nicole agrees. They make plans to work again that night, then hit the bars on Sunday.
It all smacks of high school detentiona low-stakes transaction of transgressive behavior followed by minor consequences in which everyone has a role to play. The principal, in every sense of the word, is Frank Morgan. Morgan, 50, runs the prostitution unit in 3D. More accurately, Morgan is the prostitution unit in 3D.
Enforcing prostitution laws in D.C. is a lot like trying to stave off beach erosion: You can prop up poles under the houses and requisition as many sandbags as you can afford, but eventually forces greater than any individual’s efforts will overtake and envelop you. Morgan isn’t taking steps to preserve the town for generations; he’s just trying to keep our summer home from crashing into the sea.
No doubt many of the johns down the hall are worrying about the quicksand of ramifications that they’ve obliviously strolled into, led by the least thoughtful organ in their bodies. But as the prostitutes know all too well, there’s really nothing to get upset about. Outside of Nevada, D.C. is one of the best places in this country to walk the streets or to hire a sex worker.
“Everybody likes to ‘ho’ in D.C.,” Morgan says. “They know not to cross the line into Virginia because they’ll get fucked….[D.C.’s] a carnival of carnal knowledge.” The prostitutes know that getting busted in D.C. means little more than an inconvenience and a lost night’s worth of earnings; they’re far more fearful of their pimps’ fists than the arm of the law.
As an army of one, Morgan knows he’s really in charge of containment and little else. As it is, his team is only as good as his recruiting: He shops for enterprising officers who are looking for a little overtime and some street-level policing. In the past, the Metropolitan Police Department (MPD) devoted entire divisions to downsizing the world’s oldest profession. But as the blood spilled in District streets swelled into a river, the courts began opting not to waste prison beds on criminals who gratify rather than prey.
MPD has responded by systematically reassigning officers away from enforcement of the city’s prostitution laws. Even in semen-soaked 3D, where almost a full third of last year’s total citywide prostitution busts went down, Morgan has had to wave bye-bye to the other three members of his prostitution team. And if it weren’t for the savvy, vocal community activists in the prostitution-polluted Logan Circle area, Morgan knows even he would be gone as well.
Instead, he’s regarded by Logan Circle activists as the last man standing between their neighborhood and a tidal wave of prostitution, needles, and noise. Even those police officers who think his efforts are wasted on attacking what they deem a low priority, victimless crime admire his work ethic and like him personally. MPD higher-ups laud his efforts even as they deny him the resources to do his job well. And, perhaps most tellingly, the prostitutes he arrests count him as the only man in their lives who sees them as something other than a source of coin
Morgan lives in a middle earth where what is defined as crime has no real consequence. His one-man crusade vividly personifies our city’s conflicted feelings about prostitution. It’s kind of grossbut then again, grow upit’s not that big a deal, reallyand I do feel kinda sorry for the girlsthough keep it out of the neighborhoods, particularly minebut there are so many more violent crimes for the police to tackle, especially in D.C.but it definitely makes the city look bad but whatever…
This meandering mandate has been handed down to Frank Morgan by all of us, and the amazing thing is that, not only has his head not exploded from the pressure, he’s managed to keep almost everybody fairly happy in the process. In a rusted, anachronistic judicial machine that seizes up every other day, Morgan may be the only goddamned cog that works.
The night begins on one of the first warm evenings of the year, a Friday in March when Washingtonians fill the streets, most of them palpably happy. Having abandoned their jackets and cardigans, residents of the capital city hop up and down city thoroughfares, smiling, gushing. At downtown bars like Polly Esthers, the vibe emanating from the converging hordes of singles recalls Tennyson’s observation about spring and “a young man’s fancy lightly turn[ing] to thoughts of love.”
Only a few blocks away, the fancy of men both old and young is turningnot so lightlyto thoughts less lofty. Cars driven by every possible permutation of man are cruising the “strip,” the downtown track of streets suffused with prostitutes of every variant: streetwalking women around L Street and on Massachusetts Avenue NW; transgenders, or “shims,” on 9th and 10th Streets NW; gay hustlers at the courthouse; crack whores on Rhode Island Avenue NW and scattered throughout the city. But the epicenter, just off Mass around 13th, is choked with so much traffic that you’d think the Wizards had made the playoffs.
In a white unmarked cruiser, Morgan pulls into a parking lot near 13th and L Streets NW, followed by undercover officers in more unmarked cars, backup cops on motorcycles, and a paddy wagon. In the Yankees cap that is as much a part of his uniform as his gun, Morgan parks and pops out of his car, bubbling like a Little League dad in the midst of pregame rah-rah. “OK!” he cries. “Let’s go!”
His hair turned gray some time ago, and the gravity of middle age has begun its pull around the edges of his once-jutting jaw, but Morgan’s Irish face is still boyish. Growing up in the Bronx just a few blocks shy of Yankee Stadium, Morgan didn’t think much about his future, though (of course) his Catholic-schoolteacher mother dreamed of his entering the priesthood. After graduating from high school in New Jerseywhere his father, an insurance investigator, moved the family when Morgan was 10he spent a few token months at a Maryland junior college and at the University of Maryland. He met his wife Linda, an Air Force brat, at Maryland and then promptly dropped out, enlisting in the Air Force. Along the path the military set for him, Morgan earned a degree as he moved around the states from base to base, studying at the University of South Carolina, at the University of Miami, and back at Maryland, from which he graduated in 1973.
The 24-year MPD veteran didn’t exactly grow up dreaming about strapping on a badge. “I couldn’t get any other jobs when I got out of the military,” he says. “There were no jobs. [MPD was] looking for [veterans], anyway. They were recruiting.” His first stop was as a beat cop in 1D; then he hit the road for a tour in Homicide. He worked with the Drug Enforcement Agency in 4D and with the FBI in 3D as part of the Violent Crime Task Force. He found his professional home when he started working prostitution for 3D in 1995.
Waiting for Morgan in the parking lot this Friday night, as usual, are the Logan Circle community activists, tenacious do-gooders topped by neon-orange hats. Gleeful that someone is doing something about the neighborhood blight they’ve been complaining about since 1991, the Orange Hats observe the continuous sting operations from the periphery of the parking lot like kids peeking in on an adult party.
“All right, ladies,” Morgan cues, and four women officers, in slutted-out attire, march to the corner of 13th and L Streets NW. Foremost among them is one of Morgan’s favorites, Officer Donna Leftridge. The thin, leggy officer, 25, bounces side to side, sashaying in character, balancing on her high heels in a tight red dress. Tonight’s job, dubbed “Operation Impact,” is her fifth or sixth “prostitution reversal,” as the general detail is called, and she shines.
In a stairwell behind them, radio transmitter in hand, huddles Morgan’s “main man,” Sgt. Joe Gilson, 31, wearing a Tommy Hilfiger-ish MPD T-shirt, his eyes the color of Louisiana swamp algae. As soon as one of the women officers has a sex-for-cash transaction “scheduled,” she will signal to Gilson with the agreed-upon code, not unlike a good third-base coach. Gilson will then radio the uniformed cops lurking nearby, who will zoom out and make the arrest. He’s stationed himself so close to the women because the women take point without their weapons in order to remain in character.
“You don’t realize how dangerous this isthat’s why we’re so close to them,” Morgan says, roughly an hour before one of his undercover officers narrowly escapes a stabbing.
Leftridge, vice cop in a red dress, sultrily approaches the two men in an Isuzu Trooper. If you want to make the busts, Leftridge says later, you’ve got to walk the walk: “It’s acting. I shake my hips a little, walk a little differently, use props like a lollipop, play with your gum, wink at ’em, blow kisses, use the condoms as props, put one in my mouth….If you don’t do stuff like that you can be out there for five hours.”
“What’s up?” she says to the men in the Trooper, according to her police report. “What you want?”
“I want everything,” the driver replies.
“One or both of you?” she asks.
“So you want me to fuck you and suck your dick?” the police officer says.
“How much you got?”
“How much you charging?”
“You got $75?”
“I got mine,” responds the driver, turning to his pal. “You got yours?”
“I need a MOST machine,” is the sheepish response from Shotgun.
“How about $50?” Officer Leftridge asks.
“Yeah,” says the driver, turning to his friend. “I got you.”
Leftridge gives the secret signal and steps away from the car just a bit.
“They got him,” observes a bicycle messenger, spectating from across the street.
“We got one,” Gilson says on the radio transmitter.
Morgan waves them on, and the cycle cops shoot out of the lot, followed by a cruiser. The motorcycles rocket off to either side of the car, surrounding the johns; the cruiser takes an immediate right onto L, wrong way on a one-way street, and meets the johns’ car nose-to-nose. Within 30 seconds, the arrest has been made, the car seized; and, after taking notes on the conversation for her police report, Leftridge is ready to hit the street again.
Morgan runs the show from the parking lot while 3D Cmdr. Joseph Adamany looks on approvingly. When he was first assigned to command 3D, Adamany talked about assigning Morgan to a day shift, but Adamany soon realized where Morgan belonged. “I believe in putting a round peg in a round hole,” Adamany says.
Across the street sit a van and social worker from Helping Individual Prostitutes Survive (HIPS). Yolanda Pounds hands out condoms and lollipops to the legit working girls. Pounds is used to seeing police as nothing but troublein fact, she says, a number of the prostitutes she tries to help off the street complain of MPD officers who occasionally help themselves to freebies. But not Morgan. “He is my knight in shining armor….After these girls have been arrested, [he lets HIPS] give them certain small classes, teaching them everything from self-defense to knowing their rights about STDs, condoms,” Pounds says.
“He has allowed us to go in and help them to become a better person or help them get off the streets. Any time he has a girl and she’s underage, he will call our hot line, let us go in and talk to the girl…”
From where Morgan sits, the line between perpetrator and victim is frequently blurred. While he’s overseeing the sting, a uniformed officer brings over an underage prostitute.
“How old are you?” Morgan asks her, the indignation in his voice tempered by a shade of tenderness.
She’s 16, she slurs in a drugged haze.
“Where are you from?”
Bladensburg, she says.
“Who put you out on the street here?”
She can’t remember. Morgan has the girl sent over to Youth Services, where they’ll try to contact her parents and keep track of her as a person in need of supervision. He turns his attention back to the business at hand.
“Twelve hundred block, a Lincoln, black guy with a moustache,” crackles Gilson’s voice. “She’s flagged him down. Stand by.”
A uniformed cop laughs at a snagged Spanish-speaking johna juanwho’s suddenly monolingual. “It’s funny,” he says. “They speak English fine when they ask for pussy.”
Another bust is made. Then another. Morgan praises the officers individually as each hauls her game back to the parking lot.
“I do believe we got a hot mama in this red dress,” bursts one of the Orange Hats, praising Leftridge almost like a proud mother. “She is
By 12:30 a.m., the paddy wagon has been packed with morose johns, and another wagon has to
Undercover male officers Tim Palchak and Ken Harvey keep shuttling snagged prostitutes in, too. Palchak, however, has had better nightshe’s volunteered for Morgan’s detail so many times that some of the prostitutes know him by name.
“Hey, Tim!” they say. “Oh, Tim! I didn’t know it was you! Let me get out of the car.” They’re also able to recognize his BMW, which is the only unmarked vehicle he has available since MPD leadership ruled that the department could no longer afford to let Morgan and his team rent cars. Frustrated by his gradually eroding cover, Palchakjoined by an assistant U.S. attorneysits in the Beemer, asking Morgan if he can try just once more before returning to 3D.
“Yeah, go ahead,” Morgan says. “You guys look like a couple of nerds trying to get laid. Yeah, you look like losers.”
But the shop talk is interrupted by more urgent business. Right outside a sketchy downtown watering hole called the Green Lantern, a working girl has pulled a knife on Officer Harvey. Morgan puts Operation Impact on hold as he and backup respond to Harvey’s call.
“That sounds like a serious assignment,” Leftridge says, pulling the edges of her skirt down and instinctively running in the direction of the barwhich doesn’t come easy on stiletto pumps.
“Man, I ain’t got a gun,” she laments.
Backup arrives in the nick of time for Harvey. “She would have cut me,” he later says. “For some reason, she did not believe I was police. If [backup] had arrived five seconds later, they would have been calling an ambulance for me.”
By 1:10, Morgan has decided to call the operation quits for the night. They’ve snagged 10 johns and seven prostitutes in slightly over two hours; the Orange Hats are temporarily content; all officers ultimately have escaped harm for yet another night. Morgan surveys the harvest with satisfaction.
“OK, everybody!” Morgan yells. “Run the hos! Get your notes together!”
By 3:15 Saturday morning, the seven prostitutes have been processed and escorted to the central cellblock in the basement of 300 Indiana Ave. NW. After they’re fingerprinted, they wait three hours or so for the FBI to cross-check their prints, and then they see a judge, who gives them a court date. They’re released by Saturday evening, with time enough to wash up and return to the streets. The johns follow a similar route that puts them back on the streets in
Morgan and his recruited team are tired. No sleep, exhausting duty, an officer’s life threatened …Morgan’s looking forward to the addition of another officer to the 3D prostitution unit, which should happen in a few weeks. He’s jammed the dike every which way he can, but he’s just one man, with only 10 fingers.
“The hos beat us out of court a lot of times,” Morgan says. “They say to us, ‘You gonna be out there tonight?’ We say, ‘Well, yeah.’ They say, ‘I’ll see you out there.’ It’s almost as if we have the same job.”
As in the Warner Bros. cartoon featuring Sam Sheepdog and Ralph Wolf punching the clock before and after a day of battle for the flock, Morgan’s team and the prostitutes they arrest are inextricably, often cordially, bound. In between all of the questions about “DOBs” and “aka’s,” the chatter between police and policed is friendly and unhurried. Everybody knows they will see each other again.
“They’ll be back on the strip tomorrow night,” Morgan promises, as he finishes up his paperwork.
Frank Morgan is utterly un-outraged by this fact. For a churchgoing Catholic who practically lives inside society’s carny tent, Morgan stands on no discernible political or moral soapboxes. An agnostic by trade, if not faith, his only causes are competence and congeniality. He is more concerned about MPD’s exodus of excellent officerslike, possibly, his right-hand man Gilsonthan the seemingly unending supply of prostitutes. There is no existential search for what it all means, little frustration with the hurdles set for him by the city, and zero disgust with the creepy-crawlies under the rocks he is charged with
He tells about a wealthy, successful Broadway dancer, for instance, whom Leftridge busted not long ago during a reversal. Morgan, who regularly attends the theater with his wife, had orchestra seats for the showBring in ‘Da Noise, Bring in ‘Da Funka few days later. “I tell you, buddy: He could dance!” he says. He doesn’t question what the dancer was doing cruising the strip to begin with. There is no disapproval, just an appreciation for the hoofing.
Morgan’s attitude toward consumers extends to the providers as well. He speaks of the cold facts of urban life without even a patina of distaste. He flatly describes the “shims,” as “big dudes, thugs, ex-cons mostly” who charge anywhere from $75 to $100 for sex. But it’s not real sex, Morgan explains: “They’ll fake-fuck you. They hold it in their hand. Lotta the hos do that, too.”
No big deal, really. Just the way it is. “Get a date, get the price, get the act, and radio us,” he directs a shy rookie who’s about to be an undercover john for the first time. “Fifty bucks for head, a hundred for a fuck….They’ll say $22 for a room. Agree to it. You can be aggressive. Tell ’em, ‘I’m looking to get my dick sucked.’…If there are two girls, ask ’em for a threesome. The more girls, the better….All right, buddy? You’re gonna be great.” The Yankees cap seems like more than just a prop when he’s coaching the newbies.
The prostitutes have come to see him as a kindred spirit, punching in on a tough job that everybody needs and nobody supports. “Some of the girls respect him like a fatherthey trust him; he understands them,” says social worker Pounds. “He works with them as much as he can. Because of what he does and how nice he is to them, they’re willing to get off the streets…go back to their parents or…get into some type of transitional living. Once he gets them off the street he says, ‘The streets are not meant for youyou’re a wonderful person.’…He talks to them about their life and they open up to him.” Pounds credits Morgan with convincing at least 10 of these women to leave the streets behind.
Predictably, many 3D officers gripe about Morgan’s “hooker day care” and the deterioration of the line between enforcement and nurturing. 3D, they’ll tell you, isn’t supposed to teach prostitutes judo or safe sexthe efforts of Morgan and his informal team could be better spent enforcing the laws they are sworn to uphold.
“It seems like it’s baby-sitting,” says one 3D officer. “They bring them in, and it looks like a joke, nothing serious. I don’t have a problem with people using other means to try to deter criminals, but they put a lot of time and effort into the prostitution when we got more serious crimes. We got rapes, we got homicides, we got assaults, we got thefts of autos; all those crimes are definitely more serious than prostitution. More than a couple dozen officers will tell you that.”
Still, you’d be hard pressed to find another officer in this city as beloved by both bleeding-heart prostitution workers and NIMBYish community activists like the Logan Circle Orange Hats. Watching the parade of dysfunction and pathology that sashays its way onto their front stoops, it’s not surprising that the citizens of Logan Circle want somebody pushing it away. Even if he is nice to the women who are doing the sashaying.
“Frank’s compassion can be appreciated,
but I don’t think it affects his job,” says Laura
Shell, coordinator of the Old City Coalition
Morgan says he’s serious about his current gig because he’s only got one speed. “When I did Drugs, I was into Drugs,” he says, referring to his time working with DEA. He insists that Operation Impact is having its way with the horde of hookers. “If we didn’t do it, you’d have a hundred hos out there,” he says.
Morgan makes no apologies for his willingness to see humans where others see only hookers, although he has a tendency to call all of them “hos,” no matter what their history is. Busting chops and kicking ass is fine when you’ve got thugs who will waste you for your Metro pass, but it’s a different matter when the offenders spend most of their time being victimized.
“These are kids,” he says. “A lot of them are crying out for help….And everything bad happens to her. We’re fucking her over by arresting her; the pimp is fucking her over by everything that they do; the johns are having sex with her. She gets nothing. Whatever bad is going to happen, it’s going to happen to that girl, whether she’s beaten, or thrown in jail, or whatever.”
The only street creatures on Morgan’s beat that raise his blood pressure are the pimps. One Saturday night, a pimp named Smiley was hassling a prostitute, trying to “break” her, trying to intimidate her into handing over her earnings and becoming his property. “Hey, bitch, this is straight-up pimpin’ and hoin’,” Smiley said. “Break yourself, bitch.”
But Morgan and some other officers, having observed the whole transaction, rode up on Smiley.
“How would you like it if we make you give her your money?!” Morgan asked the cornered pimp. “How would you like it if we put a dress on you and put you out here?!”
Palchak says the extent of a pimp’s power over a woman is inexplicable. “They’re like a cult,” Palchak says of the prostitute-pimp relationship. “They’re almost possessed by their pimps. There are all these rules: You can’t look at your own pimp, you can’t look at another pimp, you have to put your head down when they ride by….They’re almost like dogs. They only come if their pimp whistles or snaps for them.”
But a pimp is almost impossible to successfully prosecute unless you can get one of his prostitutes to testify against him. Morgan insists that offering a prostitute a few kind words and a shoulder to cry on hasat least onceled him to one of the holy grails of vice work: busting a major pimp good and hard.
“The roughest thug in the world, if you sit him down, get him a soda, a cigarette, treat ’em like they’re human, they’ll tell you shit,” he says. “It’s the same with these girls….Every now and then you can get a weak girl and flip them.”
It’s not always just a street version of cat and mouse. Every once in a while, Morgan and the people he busts can topple really bad guys. Last year’s heralded conviction of Falls Church’s Benjamin “Anthony Styles” Geraldinfamous for a list of 72 rules for his prostitutescouldn’t have been made without Morgan’s securing the trust of two Canadian prostitutes.
“Frank was the key to that case,” says Assistant U.S. Attorney Lisa Prager, who successfully prosecuted Styles. “It’s not only his relationship with those individual girls, though….The beauty of a guy like Frank is, he knows everybody and everything going on down there: He knows how to work the computers….He knows how to bring the FBI together with Fairfax County; he knows how to reach out to someone with Immigration.”
And he knows that, while every once in a while he can hit a home run, it’s mostly singles.
“Morgan, I ain’t got a pimp no more,” one prostitute eagerly tells him one April night, with the tone of the family screwup telling her dad she scored a C- on a spelling test.
“That’s great, honey,” Morgan replies as he slams shut the door to the paddy wagon.
A few days after the March 27 sting, Leftridge finds out she’s pregnant. Morgan’s happy for her, of course, but keenly disappointed that she will no longer be working the duty. “She was real good, a natural for the job,” he says. “She’s an aggressive officer; she likes locking people up. Lot of girls don’t like doing it. Plus, she’s a very good-looking girlthe johns liked her. Remember the night we were there, the commander thought she was a real prostitute? We’re really going to miss her.”
Since Morgan is essentially a one-man team who is forced to enlist officers on the fly, Leftridge’s pregnancy will probably have an impact on future undercover operations. On Friday, April 24, for instance, a female officer from another district who had told Morgan she’d work the detail with him simply pulled a no-show. “She was doing us a favor,” Morgan allows. “Still, you get pissed off. We had made plans….Leftridge was a find because she liked to do it. The new girls don’t want to do it.”
Leftridge says pulling faux-hooker duty has
“It’s something I only do once in a while,” Leftridge says. “It sort of changes my opinions about men….It makes you afraid to meet people, especially if you’re single….It gives you a real nasty feeling. You get some sickos who say some outlandish and cruel things. It’s degrading; you [never] get used to people talking to you like that.”
“I always tell the girls: ‘It’s not real; they’re going to jail; you’re not really dating them,’” Morgan, who goes home to Maryland, says. “I always think of D.C. like it’s Disneyland, Adventure World. You go there, but then you come home again. My life’s not like that. Leftridge’s young, so she doesn’t know how to separate it from her life yet.”
Morgan had already lost another shining star of his operation, Officer Suzannie Leo, a Jamaican-born officer whom Morgan credits with anywhere from 475 to 500 arrests last year. But Leo burned out, probably for good, in February. “She did it for three years,” Morgan says. “It’s tough work. You know, she’s got children.”
The fact that his operation is set up so that Leo’s burnoutor Leftridge’s pregnancy, or Palchak’s uber-efficiencywill probably hobble future operations doesn’t faze him. “I have no control over it,” he says. “I just have to do what I’m told….I can always pull some people. But on certain nights, if they don’t want to work, I’m dead.”
He’s resigned himself to these realities: that he’s pretty much on his own, that he sometimes even has to work solo, that many younger officersespecially womenfind the job disgusting and therefore refuse to help him. And some of the people who think they are making his life easier end up doing the opposite. His assignment has its roots, for instance, in a 1991 effort to push prostitutes out of downtown commercial areas, which prohibited right turns from 9 p.m. to 5 a.m. on the corners where streetwalkers gathered. Unfortunately for residents of Logan Circle, according to the civic association’s Shell, “this pushed the girls into our areas. It forced all the traffic and all the prostitution into our neighborhood.”
The subsequent laws passed by the D.C. Council have often veered dramatically from their intended purposelike Councilmember Jack Evans’ first piece of legislation to fully pass the council, the 1992 “forfeiture” law, which empowered MPD to seize the johns’ cars. In passing the lawwhich had reportedly worked well in Portland, Ore.Washington, D.C., became only the second city in the nation to try to deter johns by threatening to abscond with their autos.
The problem with the forfeiture law, as with so much D.C. legislation, came in implementation: “We have no place to put the cars,” Morgan says. Officers in 3D, fresh from the scene of prostitution busts, would shuttle dozens of cars into their parking lot on U Street NW, which took up parking spaces normally used by officers. “Cops got mad,” Morgan says. “If I seize cars, they sit there for months. And everybody gets pissed off….I started seeing my name on the bathroom wall, and I said, ‘Fuck this.’”
MPD was unable to provide alternative parking for the seized vehicles, so forfeiture plans fell by the wayside: From 1995 until March of this year, 3D cops seized only 76 cars in the course of 4,995 arrests of both prostitutes and johns. In other words, in nearly 5,000 arrests, only 1.5 percent resulted in forfeited cars. And many of those were eventually returned. Not a lot of deterrence there.
In trying to get the forfeiture law to work, John Ralls, Evans’ chief of staff, realized that the different parts of the system were often working at cross-purposes: “Corporation Counsel would blame the courts; courts would blame the U.S. Attorney; the U.S. Attorney would blame the cops. It became clear we needed to get all the players in a room to talk.” From this realization was born yet another attempt to tackle the problem: the Community Anti-Prostitution Task Force.
The task force suggested two major changes: The first was an increase in fine for an FTO, the failure-to-obey traffic offense that had long been a handy tool to rein in streetwalkers selling their wares literally in the street. Previously, the relatively harmless $50 fine had meant prostitutes would simply hit the bricks prepared with a half a C-note. The 1995 law, sponsored by Evans, increased the FTO fine range to a minimum of $100, a max of $1,000.
According to Morgan, however, the prostitutes have simply changed their behavior so as to comply with FTO guidelines. “The hos don’t walk on the street anymorethey stay on the sidewalk.” Additionally, Morgan says the law has had a disastrous effect on working girls trying to get themselves off the streets. Before the increase in FTO fines, he says, “We’d have [3D] packed with hos charged with FTOs. They’d say, ‘Morgan, take me in.’…Before, it was a friendly charge. I was an excuse for them to get off the street. They could always say [to their pimps]: ‘Morgan got me.’”
The 1995 Evans law also increased the penalties for prostitution$500 for a first offense, $750 for a second, and $1,000 for a thirdand added a mandatory night in jail, according to Evans’ office. “This will get them off the streets,” Evans gushed to the Washington Post after the bill passed. But neighborhood activist Shell has been singularly unimpressed with the task force’s accomplishments. And Morgan says the notion that an increase in fines could change the landscape of prostitution in the District is laughable.
“I think Evans is trying,” Morgan says. “I think he’s a real good guy. I think he’s really sincere. I just think that the system beats him, too.”
The real problem isn’t that there aren’t enough laws, says Officer Palchak. It’s that “the court system doesn’t take prostitution seriously….I know a guy who’s been caught selling marijuana four times, and now he’s in jail [awaiting] sentencing. All the time you get a prostitute with 20 convictions, and she gets probation. They go around and round. Some of them will do jail time, but not much.”
Kenneth Cowgill, chief of the misdemeanor trial section for the U.S. Attorney’s Office, Superior Court Divisionresponsible for prosecuting every adult solicitation charge meted out in the Districtsays that the legal penalties are there, but they’re not used. “It’s commonplace for the penalties to be at the lower end and to be suspended in favor of probation,” Cowgill says. “Judges have enormous caseloads with which they must deal, and there is only so much jail space available. It’s easy to glibly say that the police, the prosecutors, and the judges aren’t doing enough, but one must remember all the other things they must do.”
“They’ve got so much more serious crime to deal with in this city,” Morgan agrees. “They can’t fill the cells with hos and johns.”
So how serious is the D.C. Council about eliminating the problem? “Our goal is not to eliminate prostitution, it’s to get it out of neighborhoods. Maybe it goes to Virginia or Maryland. Our goal is to get it off the streets of Ward 2,” says council aide Ralls, in a nice mix of pragmatics and parochialism.
As part of that mandate, back in August 1995, Morgan was given his own four-person team to focus on the prostitutes who threatened to overrun parts of Ward 2. But with the advent of the localized police service areas system last July, Morgan’s small team was disbanded.
“I’m so frustrated,” says Logan Circle activist Shell. “Why am I still doing this? When I put the orange hat on in September 1991 it never occurred to me that I’d be still wearing the hat in 1998….
“The only success in fighting prostitution is that man, Sgt. Frank Morgan….I don’t know what we’d do without him.”
On Saturday night, May 2, Morgan is literally the only one trying to stop prostitution in 3D, if not the entire city.
With orange cones he’s “borrowed” from construction sites, and flares from 3D, he’s setting up roadblocks all over downtown. “Short on manpower,” he explains through a bundle of his only anti-prostitution weapons. He hit the streets solo at 11 p.m. and has set up seven roadblocks, “trying to get the traffic to go back to Virginia.”
Arrests aren’t really realistic in a one-man show, so Morgan’s task tonight is as Sisyphean as it gets above Hadesas soon as he places the cones or flares, johns drive right over them. “They’re not going to let anything stop them,” Morgan laughs. “You gotta keep going back and putting them back up.”
He fashions these makeshift blockades by himselfat 14th and L, at 13th and Vermont, at 12th and L, at both Massachusetts lanes feeding into Thomas Circlescurrying like a crab from block to sordid block. For seven hours, he sets up the cones. Johns knock them down. He puts them back up. He shoos one group of prostitutes down the street. He chases another. The first pack returns. And so on.
At 6 a.m. Sunday, he starts to say it like he really means it. “C’mon,” he tells the prostitutes. “Everybody off the street. Decent people are going to church. If you don’t leave, I’ll lock you up for the weekend.”
On nights like this, he thinks about his wife Linda’s insistent urging that he retire. He remembers some of the trips to Europe he’s taken through his father-in-law’s travel agency, the guided tours he’s led for the agency during vacations and leaves, the standing offer to lead those tours. He’s been working nights pretty much since he joined the force; his days are spent in court. It might be nice to actually save himself from the streets, but who would take his place?
“Hopefully, we’ve discouraged some people,” he says. “We kept the girls moving; they got frustrated. It’s like trying to hold up water….It always seeks the path of least resistance. It just comes through another hole.”CP