Prostitution Arrests Jump 21 Percent in San Fernando Valley

The lingering effects of the recession are blamed on a recent spike in prostitution

Business owners on an industrial strip in the northeast San Fernando Valley have been noticing more of them over the last year and a half - a parade of scantily-clad women offering up their services to men in cars.

Prostitution along Lankershim Boulevard in Sun Valley, long a known hub, has picked up, mirroring a national trend that experts say was sparked by the nation’s slumping economy.

“They’re dropped off in carloads - six to seven at a time,” said Cindy Sower, owner of Sun Valley Equipment Rentals. “You see them walking - they’re practically naked.

“In 14 years, it’s never been like it is now.”

A study by Cornell University in 2010 said that prostitution tends to go up during tough economic times as more people walk the streets looking for opportunities to make money. Some rings have even have turned to using abandoned foreclosures as houses of prostitution, the report said.

Barbara Brents, a sociology professor at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, and co-author of "The State of Sex: Tourism, Sex and Sin in the New American Heartland," told the LA Weekly that "turning to prostitution in times of economic hardship is a tried-and-true option for women."

L.A. police are pushing back.

The number of prostitution-related arrests in the San Fernando Valley jumped 21 percent, from  28 in the first 66 days of 2011 to 34 in the same period this year, according to Officer David Houze, the assistant vice coordinator for the Los Angeles Police Department's Valley Bureau.

The 34 arrests this year came during a 20-hour blitz March 7 on Lankershim in which police used undercover female officers posing as prostitutes.

Police conduct Johns stings routinely throughout the city, but this one was the first sustained and coordinated effort involving patrol and vice officers, said Capt. Joe Hiltner, the commander of the area.

“The theory is that if we take the customers away, they’ll have no reason to hang out here,” Hiltner said.

One of the men arrested during the operation was a worker for the L.A. County Department of Children and Family Services. He was on duty and using a county-issued van when he allegedly tried to pick up a prostitute, Hiltner said.

Over the last few years, prostitution has remained consistent, Houze said, adding that it fluctuates, with some areas picking up during the summer and easing in the winter.

In the Valley, prostitution bounces between Lankershim and Sepulveda.

"You can move it around. You can reduce it in an area. It’s hard to actually make it go away,” Houze said.

Police say that with prostitution comes a decline in neighborhood safety with increased reports of assaults, rapes and robberies.

“It’s not just prostitutes,” Houze said. ”It affects the overall quality of life.”

The area targeted by cops last week is a half-mile strip of the Lankershim Corridor between San Fernando Road and Pendleton Street. (Map below.)

It’s an industrial strip in a working-class neighborhood with heavy traffic. Workers pick up prostitutes at all hours of the day - in the mornings, before work, and at night.

Police have taken new approaches to try and cut the problem.

Vice detectives are training 150 patrol officers in how to cite and arrest individuals believed to be loitering for prostitution. Cops are working closely with a neighborhood prosecutor to ensure convictions include stay-away orders. And police are working on getting no-loitering signs put up in the area.

Sower said she has noticed a drop in activity in recent weeks, but added that business owners in other areas are reporting similar problems on Sepulveda.

“So many people in this neighborhood are scared to death,” she said. “It’s made me scared. It’s made me angry, disappointed, ashamed and wanting to do something about it.”

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