Maria Torres led two men inside a vacant Logan Circle building early on Aug. 17 to trade sex for money, according to police. About 10 minutes later, she lay dead, a single bullet in her head.
About two weeks before the 22-year-old was killed, the police department's Third District disbanded its Prostitution and Tactical Unit. The “tac unit” was an 11-member team of plainclothes officers battling the sex and drug trades; it has now been replaced by a smaller squad of uniformed officers. Inspector Sonya T. Proctor, commander of the Third District, says the new uniformed group will have about six officers but does not yet have all its permanent members.
Some community activists in Logan Circle, which is part of the Third District, say the tac unit might have prevented Torres' murder. They say the unit's disbanding leaves no specific squad to conduct investigations into escort services, local prostitution houses, or “adult services” ads, which sometimes turn out to be fronts for prostitutes.
“If we had had a tac unit in place and it had come to their attention that there was some suspicious activity going on at that building, the tac unit could have dealt with that,” suggests Laura Shell, field coordinator for the Old City Coalition Citizens Patrol, a community group that combats prostitution by sending orange-hat patrols onto the streets to drive prostitutes away. Shell lives about two blocks south of Logan Circle, where much of the District's sex trade is concentrated.
But police believe Torres met Matthew Herencia, the Prince George's County man who allegedly killed her, on the street, not at a prostitution house or through an escort service. Torres led Herencia and another man, who hasn't been charged, to a vacant building at N Street and Vermont Avenue NW that is owned by Howard University, according to police and Howard officials. Police say she gave a security guard a $10 bribe to enter the building. The case was publicized because Herencia allegedly fired at police officers before escaping on foot. He was captured a few hours later and is being held in Prince George's County jail.
According to Sgt. Patrick Shine of the Metropolitan Police Department's homicide division, the Torres case is “probably not” one that the tac unit could have prevented. Proctor agrees. “If you understand the circumstances of that, I don't think there was anything we could have done,” she says.
Proctor believes the uniformed prostitution team will be more effective than the tac unit over the long haul. “We now have a prostitution unit that is a uniformed presence [and] that is highly visible, much more so than formerly,” she says. And even though the unit isn't “fully formed,” Proctor says, she's been supplementing it with temporary officers and expects to have the permanent unit in place “soon,” though she didn't say when.
Proctor says she made the switch to a uniformed unit after receiving phone calls from residents who complained that they could see prostitutes from their windows but no officers, in part because the tac unit may have been out there, but was not in uniform. “It didn't serve us well for people not to clearly see that we were addressing the problem,” she says.
What's good for the department's image is apparently good policy as well—uniformed officers may make neighborhood residents comfortable, but they have the opposite effect on streetwalkers. Proctor says more prostitutes are encouraged to leave by the sight of uniforms. “You can hear them say, "Whoop, they're rounding up tonight,' and they move on,” she says. Proctor says arrests on prostitution and related charges have remained stable over the last few months at approximately 70 per week.
Investigation into escort services and “bawdy houses,” as cops call them, will be handled by the department's Narcotics and Special Investigations Division (NSID). “[NSID] has more people available for this than we do,” Proctor says, adding that the Third District's vice unit will also work on plainclothes prostitution investigations.
But Logan Circle activists say the uniformed unit has done little so far to reduce streetwalking in the area, and they are skeptical that the NSID, a citywide division, can tackle a problem that's particularly bad in the Third District. “It's the worst I've ever seen it,” Helen Kramer says of the area's street-level sex trade. Kramer, a resident of Logan Circle since 1979, is the president of the Logan Circle Community Association. She says she watches pimps drop off prostitutes by the carload when she walks her dog in the evenings.
Shell says the tac unit was recognized as one of the most effective police units in the city; according to figures given to her by a tac unit officer, the squad closed 15 prostitution houses, a massage parlor, and an escort service in the last three years. (And two of its five long-term investigations since 1992 centered on prostitutes who were advertising in Washington City Paper.) “We're very sad that that [unit] came to an end,” Shell says. “We're very sad that our [new] prostitution unit isn't fully functioning, and meanwhile, prostitution just goes on and on and on.”
But Proctor and Shell agree that the issue of enforcement goes beyond particular police tactics. They are critical of D.C. courts, which give most prostitutes light sentences, even after repeated arrests. And the fine for “failure to obey”—a charge often used to arrest prostitutes because full solicitation charges require more evidence—is only $50. Police say many prostitutes always carry $50 so they can hit the streets again shortly after being arrested.
D.C. Councilmember Jack Evans, whose Ward 2 jurisdiction includes Logan Circle, introduced legislation this summer that would have raised the $50 fine to $300, but the council opted to raise only the fine for solicitation, which increased from $300 to $500. The new law, which has already taken effect, also requires those convicted of prostitution to spend at least one night in jail.
Shell says anti-prostitution efforts won't amount to much until the “failure to obey” fine increases. Proctor agrees. “If the fine is raised to a point where fines break your back, I think that's when you start to have some impact,” she says. Evans will convene police officials, community organizers, court authorities, and others on Sept. 15 as part of a series of meetings he staged this summer to work out new anti-prostitution efforts.
But unfortunately for Logan Circle inhabitants, most D.C. residents don't seem to think prostitution is a terrible problem—at least not in a city where police have more than enough homicides and drug cases to investigate. “There are still those people who view it as a victimless crime,” Shell says. “But if you live in the neighborhood, you understand the real impact of the problem....You can't sleep at night—you've got traffic, gambling, commotion outside...horns start blowing, the girls get in fights with each other, pimps start beating them up. It's a quality of life factor.”