“I’m a very decent guy. I’m not a criminal.”
The suspect, handcuffed and surrounded by a half-dozen plainclothes Boston cops, didn’t look like a menacing sort. He could have been any middle-aged hump heading back from a long day laying down floor shine or hanging sheetrock, his jeans and sweatshirt still stained with Thursday on this early Friday morning. In that scenario, he was almost there.
But then he made a bad decision.
Instead of staying on course for another six blocks to safe harbor on Sydney Street, he swerved his green pick-up truck toward the curb where a pair of young women were strutting along a drab block of Dot Ave. between an unfinished Vietnamese grocery store and the Burger King drive-thru. The girls — actually two dolled-up female cops acting as decoys— came over to his window.
“They waved at me. I thought maybe they needed help,” he told the arresting officers later on. “You are guys, too; you understand.”
Any pang of empathy the BPD team might have harbored for their fellow “guy” was tempered by the testimony of their far more reliable colleagues back on the avenue. The decoy cops passed word that the “good Samaritan” was quite explicit about wanting to help himself to a sex act in exchange for a $20 bill.
Once the price was set, the “girls” told the suspect to wheel his truck down Dewar Street to Auckland Street, where a senior citizen complex towers over the sidewalk. It is also — on this night— where three unmarked Boston Police cruisers are waiting, along with a tow truck.
At this point, the would-be “John” is facing a few extra hours of waiting until his head hits the pillow on Sydney Street. Instead, he’s heading across town to a lock-up in Dudley Square and a morning appearance in Dorchester Court. The likely outcome: His truck will be impounded by city ordinance for the next two days, and he’ll pay $300 for the “sex-for-a-fee” misdemeanor.
But the real penalty, cops say, will kick in when he is left to explain his overnight sojourn and the waylaid vehicle to whoever is waiting for him on Sydney Street.
The team from Area C-11 — including the two decoys on foot, three unmarked cars, and two back-up BPD cruisers— have been out on avenue patrol with greater frequency of late, in part due to a rising volume of complaints from residents and public officials. The stretch of Dot Ave. between Savin Hill and Fields Corner has been a well-known “track” for streetwalkers for decades, but the problem has peaks and valleys — and this summer, residents in and around Savin Hill in particular started to sound the alarm.
At a community meeting last month that was organized by City Councillor Frank Baker, residents made it clear that they wanted to see stepped-up enforcement and a bigger focus on cutting into the “demand” side of the underbelly’s market: the johns who prowl the avenue late at night and early in the morning on the hunt for “working girls.”
Baker, who lives in Savin Hill, thinks that the increased police presence has already made a difference. “There’s been a major change. You can actually drive the Ave and not see [prostitutes]. I know the police are doing their work. We still need to work on lighting and tree trimming on some spots to make it safer.
If the police “do it for a while, if they give us a good six months, the word will be out that this is not a good place for these guys to go,” Baker adds.
Police statistics show that enforcement had been going on well before the public meeting last month. Since January, police have arrested or issued summonses to 34 women and 27 johns, most of them on or near Dorchester Avenue, according to numbers provided to the Reporter from District C-11. Additionally, police have made 38 warrant arrests stemming from old cases involving prostitution, including 26 along the avenue.
“This indicates the police activity along the Ave. where the officers are encountering the women and arresting them on outstanding warrants,” explains Captain Richard Sexton, commander of the C-11 district. The enforcement, Sexton says, has been augmented in recent weeks by additional units ordered in response to community complaints.
“From our perspective we’re always working it,” says Sexton. “Like any crime, it’s hard to measure what is not happening. But my officers have seen fewer women out there lately. But they also say they still see potential customers— and they aren’t finding what they’re looking for.”
Sgt. Jay Broderick, who has led multiple operations like tonight’s sting on District 11, says that there’s a core of roughly 20 to 30 regular prostitutes who typically work the Dot Ave. corridor. He’s one of the cops who has gone undercover to pick up streetwalkers and then arrest them once he has been propositioned.
“They all know us now,” says Broderick, himself a Dorchester native who says that he hears from friends and neighbors about their frustration with the open-air sex trade. “People have their kids coming out of their house to find condoms on the sidewalk. It’s crazy.”
Broderick says that a woman arrested recently pleaded guilty and was sentenced to one year’s probation — on the condition that she stay off of Dorchester Avenue between the hours of midnight and 5 a.m. Capt. Sexton says that such “stay-away” orders have been used before with mixed results, but, he says, the order gives the officers an extra tool with which to work their cases.
Lt. Det. Thomas Hopkins, a Lower Mills native, is the commanding officer of tonight’s sting, dubbed Operation Dear John— a nod to the cops’ extra emphasis on the demand side of the sex market. Hopkins says that targeting the prostitutes is not enough because most of them are drug-addicted and “so desperate, they don’t care if they get arrested.”
But enforcement that targets the johns, Hopkins says, raises the stakes by impounding the men and the vehicles that make most of the sex trade on Dot Ave. viable.
In a midnight briefing with the 8-person team back at the Gibson Street station house, Hopkins cautions the response cars that will later swoop in to make the arrests on Auckland: He doesn’t want any chases.
The first priority of the operation, he says, is the safety of the two female officers. “You really got to give credit to these officers,” Hopkins told the Reporter. “You never know what can happen with this. It really shows the life of these prostitutes, too, how desperate they must be to be in this situation.”
Both decoy officers — whose names the Reporter is withholding to keep their cover— have done this before. “Last time, earlier this summer, we did this and there were like five cars in the first hour we were out here, with another four waiting,” said one officer. “Some of these guys had a couple of car seats in the back. Tonight’s slower, though, than the weekends. Tonight were getting the real bottom of the barrel.”
In fact, this sting operation has netted just two arrests by 2:30 a.m. (A third man was later arrested at 3:30 a.m.) The first was a 20-something and part-time security guard in a Ford Focus sedan who cruised past the decoy duo four times before finally sidling up for a chat. When he was pinched a few moments later on Auckland Street, the “john” was incredulous. “What’d I do? What am I being arrested for?” he pleaded.
One of the officers told him: “C’mon, buddy, you know what it is. Soliciting sex.”
The officer pointed out that the suspect not only made four careful passes to scope out the girls, but he also seemed to observe the two male cops in a nearby watch car.
“You saw us. Why’d you stop?” the officer asked. The suspect cracked his first smile. “I did drive by four times. They’re attractive females.”
Then, as he was led away to a waiting cruiser for a ride to the B-2 lock-up, he noticed the truck backing in to hook the Ford that would spend the next two days in a city tow yard. It belonged to his girlfriend, he said.