Could 'Dear John' letters help deter prostitution in Los Angeles?

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Long ago, a "Dear John" letter used to be a break-up note a guy would get from a girlfriend.

But it might be worse for some guys in Northern California who’ve received “Dear John” letters from the City of Oakland.

These are letters that are mailed to the registered owners of vehicles that are seen in a high-prostitution area of the East Bay city — specifically, International Boulevard, widely known as a prostitution “track.” 

Lt. Kevin Wiley of the Oakland Police Department said residents of the neighborhood and people involved with one of the nearby community organizations came to the police last year pitching the “Dear John” letter program as a way to target the so-called customers, or Johns.

“They felt these individuals driving in the city were Johns looking for prostitutes or pimps trying to exploit prostitutes,” Wiley said.

The letter reads:

Dear John,

A vehicle registered under your name License # XXXX has been observed in the area of 19th Ave and International Blvd, in Oakland. We want to make you aware that this area has had an increase in drug dealing, vehicle theft robberies and prostitution activity.

The letter is warily crafted to avoid accusing the person of prostitution solicitation. It explains the dangers of prostitution and stresses that it isn’t a victimless crime. The letter's closing paragraph asks for the person’s help and cooperation in keeping the city safe by reporting suspicious activity in the area.

“You just can’t start knocking down doors,” said Wiley. “We’re restricted with what we can do with the information because we didn’t observe it ourselves.”

Xavier Sibaja is a project coordinator for the East Bay Asian Youth Center in the targeted neighborhood. The group serves the area’s adolescent population with youth violence prevention measures.

“It basically warns that soliciting for whatever reasons is not really welcome in this community, where it’s well known for sex trafficking and so forth,” Sibaja said.

The letter-writing campaign is a two-part partnership between the community and the Oakland Police Department. Community volunteers are trained to spot prostitution activity and the type of information police need, such as the vehicle’s license plate number, a description of the car and the time and location of the suspicious activity.  Then the information is submitted to the police department. A vice unit detective runs the license plate number for the registered owner’s address.

“Some of them, they’re not very careful,” Sibaja said of the suspected Johns. “They drive work or company vehicles. So the employer can also get a letter.”

Wiley said a detective checks if there are warrants out for the car's owner or if a particular license plate number is registered to a homeowner in the area, meaning that person could have been circling the neighborhood for something as innocent as parking.

Michael Shively is a senior associate at Abt Associates, a private research company focused on criminal justice, social science and public health. He was the lead researcher on a report released last year on efforts to combat prostitution and sex trafficking for the federal Department of Justice.

Shively said there is a risk with having letters sent to people who have nothing to do with prostitution.

“As long as they’re respecting due process and the presumption of innocence, and as long as these letters don’t turn into vigilante efforts, … then it makes sense,” Shively told KPCC’s Larry Mantle on AirTalk.

There are at least 44 other cities and counties nationwide that have used “Dear John” campaigns, according to Shively. It’s not one of the more common tactics used, and it’s unclear if it actually works.

Wiley said Oakland police are still trying to figure out whether the letters have deterred prostitution customers. They’re making a lot of arrests, he said. But the program is also tied to how Oakland PD responds to the letters.

“It’s just information,” he said. “We have to act upon it to make it actionable intelligence so we can do something with it.” 

The L.A. Daily News reports that 22 people were arrested in Van Nuys last week by the Los Angeles Police Department  in a one-night prostitution sting along Sepulveda Boulevard.

Los Angeles police have said there is talk of evaluating whether a "Dear John" letter campaign would work in L.A., but there’s been no official movement.

L.A. City Council Member Nury Martinez, whose district lies in the San Fernando Valley where there are at least three well-known prostitution tracks, has filed a council motion asking for the LAPD and the city attorney’s office to report on what strategies have been used to mitigate prostitution and how partnerships with social service and community organizations can be strengthened to reduced prostitution.

L.A. area politicians and officials have called for changing state law to increase penalties for "Johns," or people arrested for buying sex.

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