Bob Loper beheld an unusual sight last month as he gazed out the window of his office at 13th and Massachusetts Avenue NW. A prostitute was leaning over the window of a car stopped on the 1300 block of M Street. At the other end of the block, a police officer sat in his cruiser and bellowed from his public address speaker, “Get away from that car and get down here,” according to Loper.
The woman obeyed, walking the length of the block to the intersection of 13th and M. The police officer greeted her with a clear plastic garbage bag and ordered her to fill it with trash, Loper said. Again, the woman complied.
The Metropolitan Police Department (MPD) has tried just about everything to kill prostitution around Logan Circle, including rerouting traffic, blanketing the streets with undercover agents, and, once, escorting a platoon of scantily clad women into Virginia via the 14th Street bridge. Apparently resigned to the fact that the ladies are here to stay, the cops are now getting them to dress up something besides themselves.
Police exist to enforce and detain, not to punishso it’s no surprise that MPD brass deny recruiting sex workers as sanitation workers. “The 3rd District vice squad, which handles prostitution, has no knowledge of this practice,” says spokesperson Joe Gentile. Hiram Rosario, a 3rd District officer who patrols the prostitutes’ turf, says, “I don’t do that.” Mistaken identity, suggests Gentile, is the only explanation for the mixup. “[Observers] may be confusing the prostitutes with the Orange Hat patrols, who pick up trash and are accompanied by patrol cars,” says Gentile.
“Not a chance,” says Loper, who has seen the practice twice. Prostitutes may don orange shoes and miniskirts, but not the dorky caps of neighborhood crime fighters.
On his beat on a Saturday night in mid-April, 3rd District officer Luper Rivera acknowledged that “some” MPD officers occasionally enlist sex workers to pick up trash. And the enlistees, he says, respond with gusto. “They don’t mind,” says Rivera. “They just pick it up. They do what we tell them to do.”
Supervised trash collection doesn’t top the list of prostitute complaints about cops. “They make you do jumping jacks, they make you run, and they ask for sexual favors,” says “Lexis,” a self-professed prostitute. “One tried to slug me.”
Lexis’ sidekick nodded when asked about rubbish patrol. “I’ve seen them tell pimps, ‘Hey, clean up this lot, or we’ll arrest you.’”
The most common site for such police requests, say locals, is the northwest corner of 13th and M, where an empty lot fills up with detritus from nearby businessesa fast-food carryout, a check-cashing joint, and a liquor store. Instead of issuing citations for littering, cops hand empty plastic bags to the scofflaws. According to Logan Circle activist Helen Kramer, the police are just as likely to enlist vagrants as prostitutes. “Bums hang out around there constantly,” says Kramer, who has worked for years to clean up the corner.
Whoever the targets, this peculiar form of community policing is an abuse of power. “They can’t do that,” says Art Spitzer, legal director for the local chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union. “If there are some individual officers doing this, it sounds to me as though the police department would discipline them.”
But don’t expect a backlash against MPD over civil rights violations. Logan Circlites applaud creative ways of busting sex workers, and onlookers are more amused than offended. “The joke around here is that they’re being forced to pick up one kind of trash instead of another,” says Loper.CP