Prostitution along Lankershim Boulevard in Sun Valley has been an ongoing problem for years, but in an effort to combat the problem some men who cruised the street Thursday looking for a "car date" ended up spending their evenings with a police officer.
For the third time this year, Los Angeles Police Department vice units throughout the San Fernando Valley teamed up to carry out a task force operation on Lankershim that in the past has resulted with short term success in curbing the issue.
Three female officers went undercover as prostitutes, wearing scantily clothing and strolling the streets. When a male customer, referred to as a john, pulled up in a car or approached on foot and offered money in exchange for a sexual act, a nearby squad car would move in and make the arrest.
Patch tagged along with Sgt. Trina Bluff, who works at LAPD's Van Nuys Station. She echoed concerns of locals who've long complained about prostitution along Lankershim.
"They'll come out in the morning and find used condoms in their driveways or the street," Bluff said.
She spent most of her afternoon shift sitting in an old Toyota situated on a small side street off Lankershim. She was out of uniform and had several walkie-talkies and transmitters placed on her lap.
One of the devices was receiving audio from a transmitter the undercovers kept in their purses.
Bluff said most male johns that are caught in the act don't return, but arresting them also has another trickle down effect.
"So if we can arrest more males that are coming here to solicit, hopefully that will send a message to stay out of the area, so if you don’t have customers, there’s no point in them coming here to work," she said.
Bluff constantly kept her eyes on the undercover who was standing at the corner of the street about 100 feet away.
The undercover was flanked on both sides by two other officers in regular clothing. One of them was casually walking around with his hands in his pockets, apparently trying to pass himself off as a neighborhood youth. The other was a man with scruffy hair who looked like a transient. He was leaning against a blank wall and kept nodding off.
These officers, who are armed with concealed guns, are referred to as "ped safety" and provide security in case one of the undercover sex workers is threatened.
While the undercover prostitutes' directive is to engage with johns, they occasionally have to interact with actual sex workers. One prostitute noticed that an undercover carried the same purse as another undercover earlier in the day.
"You're a cop," the woman said, almost jokingly, before quickly walking away. She was one of the few sex workers arrested that day when officers concluded that she was loitering prostitution.
Even when she's facing scenarios like that, Officer Erika Kirk, who posed as a prostitute Thursday, said she stays in character.
"You just have to keep to your cool and keep your undercover unless it’s a safety issue," she said.
In her seven years of undercover work, Kirk said she felt threatened once when she was chased by three gang members in 2007.
While still donning a short skirt, she said her biggest motivation for her work is to get young women off the street, especially those under 18 and were manipulated by pimps into selling their bodies on the street.
"Almost all these girls have pimps. . . . What a lot of people don’t know is that prostitutes are victims, theyr’e victims of pimping . . . if they're young women that are naive, especially juveniles, they don’t really have a voice, they haven’t had a lot of love growing up, that's why they choose this line of work. And so that that's where my passion lays, it's trying to help these young women understand that they are a victim."
Typically after each task force operation, reports of prostitution dwindle significantly in the area, said Sgt. Jesse Ojeda of Foothill Division's vice unit. The last one was conducted in May, but its success has faded in the past few weeks as some business owners said they've witnessed a small uptick.
"Definitely word gets out in the area when we’re making a lot of arrests, hopefully it curbs the activity, but it's never going to make it go away completely," Bluff said. "It’s an age-old profession that we’ll be ever able to get rid of but at least we can try to put a damper on it as much as we can."
Prostitutes and johns that are booked face misdemeanor charges. If johns have a valid ID and don't have any priors or outstanding warrants, they can be released a few hours after booking and when a court date is set.
It's not much longer before prostitutes are back on the street as well.
Bluff said she knows of prostitutes that are repeat offenders whose punishments include higher bail prices and no more than a few days to a few weeks behind bars.
She said stiffer penalties would be better at combating prostitution, but that doesn't mean she discouraged from making a dent in solving the problem.
"If you live in one of the houses here and your children come out in the morning to play and they find condoms on the street, that affects you, in turn it affects the whole community," Bluff said.