2 officers posing as hookers reel in 54

— An undercover prostitution investigation is like a fishing expedition where anglers find a hot spot and keep throwing out the lures.

Within five minutes of taking up their positions behind the convenience store at Stanton and Base Line roads in southwest Little Rock on Wednesday night, two undercover police officers posing as prostitutes had their first of many customers.

One officer wore a pair of denim shorts and a T-shirt, her brunet hair gathered in a ponytail, while the other wore a brown shirt and short shorts.

"You look too good to be on the streets," the man said. "You sure you're not cops?"

The man's suspicions didn't stop him from offering the women $20 for a sex act or from becoming one of 54 people arrested during a threeday operation by the Little Rock Police Department's vice squad last week.

In all, 98 charges were filed, and Immigration and Customs Enforcement officers determined that 12 of the suspects were illegal aliens, police said.

Sgt. Jennifer Bartsch, who commands the squad known by her colleagues as "the sin police," said prostitution is only one of her unit's responsi-bilities. Her three detectives also investigate the sale of alcohol to minors and illegal gambling.

"Prostitution investigations are important because where you find prostitution, you find drugs," she said. "And wherever you find drugs, there is the likelihood of violence."

She discounts the idea that prostitution is a victimless crime.

"If you were trying to raise kids in these neighborhoods, I'm sure you wouldn't think it was victimless," she said.

In a meeting before the Wednesday portion of the sting operation, the squad went over the day's game plan with members of the mobile unit of the department's Southwest Patrol Division, which provided the uniformed officers who would be making the actual arrests.

The decoys were monitored from a short distance away, and the volunteer officers who posed as prostitutes were told not to get into the cars of the men who stopped to talk to them.

"If you see a gun or drugs in the cars, say it," detective James Johnson told the decoys.

Johnson has been with the unit for more than a dozen years and says he has seen everything.

"The youngest prostitute I've ever dealt with was 13 and the oldest was in her mid-60s," he said.

Johnson said streetwalkers can be convenient targets of street crimes or willing accomplices to them.

"Since I've been here, we've had 15-18 prostitutes killed in Little Rock," he said. "About once a year, we'll be called out to consult on a homicide."

Bartsch and Johnson said illegal drugs and prostitution are closely linked.

"About 80 percent of the girls we arrest have some sort of drug problem," Johnson said. "In about half of our prostitution arrests, we find 'crack' pipes."

And, Bartsch said, streetwalkers choose to work close to their drug dealers.

"They all work within walking distance of a crack house," Bartsch said.

In fact, out-of-towners who are looking for Little Rock's crack dens often pick up prostitutes because they know that the women know where to buy drugs, Johnson said.

Many prostitutes carry weapons, Johnson said, and some use information gained during their "dates" to pass along to accomplices who later rob the customers' homes.

On the corner of Stanton and Base Line roads after dark, the two decoys garnered a steady stream of attention, with cars circling the lot several times before slowing to talk to the women.

After dark, most of the wouldbe customers were Hispanic men, so the decoys had to rely on a mixture of hand signals and elementary Spanish to make the deals.

"Dos senoritas?" one of the female officers asked two men in a white Dodge pickup.

After a few minutes of bargaining, the deal was struck at$20 for each of the women to perform a sex act, and the men were arrested.

Bartsch said her detectives choose the areas for their operations based on complaints from the neighborhood.

On Tuesday, the unit concentrated near 24th and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Drive in central Little Rock.

"We watched while one man picked up a street prostitute, then as he was driving away, he saw our decoy and threw the prostitute out of his car and tried to make a deal with the officer," Bartsch said.

He was arrested.

"Another time, a real prostitute flagged down an officer to tell him about the new girl working in the area," she said. "It was our decoy."

Bartsch said men looking for prostitutes come from all walks of life.

"We've arrested preachers, teachers and police officers," she said.

Johnson said the customers apparently aren't concerned about sexually transmitted diseases, adding that they have arrested prostitutes who died of AIDS just weeks later.

"But the majority of the 'johns' don't ask about condoms," Bartsch said.

By 11 p.m., the decoys were tired. They were responsible for the arrests of more than 20 men - a pretty nice haul for the sin police at the southwest Little Rock hot spot.

"Let's call if off for tonight," Bartsch radioed. "We've had a good day."

Arkansas, Pages 15, 18 on 09/01/2008

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