San Diego Take it from Jim Duncan: this is how it is between midnight and 3:00 a.m. around El Cajon Boulevard. "You pull up, roll your window down, 'You need a ride?' 'Going to a party?' She'll look in and she'll say, 'Hey, you look like a cop to me' and won't get in the car. Or maybe she'll say, 'No. Not working tonight.' Or maybe she'll say 'I just live here and I'm minding my own business, so take off, asshole.'
"It's very fast-paced. You may get the prostitute in the car. But if you don't make a deal in five minutes, stop, let her out, go on to the next one. We've had good nights and bad nights. One night not too long ago I was out with them, they probably stopped 25 prostitutes on El Cajon Boulevard and University Avenue, and didn't make one [arrest]."
Lt. Duncan is talking about his life for the past two and a half years, running the city's vice unit.
What every plain-clothes, plain-car-driving detective is pretending to be a john for is to get the prostitute to talk money. Sex is legal. Sex for cash isn't. "The best case is getting them to tell you, 'Yeah. You want to have oral sex? It's going to cost you $40.' That's a good case. There's no doubt about it. But if they're not forthcoming with that kind of remark, [the cop may say], 'Well how about straight sex for $20?' And if she says, 'Yeah, that sounds good,' to get an act of furtherance, he gives her a $20 bill. If she takes it, great. If he hands her a rubber and she opens it, that helps [make a case] too."
"Prostitutes have their way of making a determination if it's a police officer [they're dealing with]. They'll feel him up for a gun. They will ask them to expose themselves. They will ask [the cop] to touch them. They will expose a part of their anatomy and say, 'If you're not a cop you have to touch me here.' If that happens, you don't do it. You don't want them that bad.
"A lot of times the prostitute won't make any deal until they're out of range of the streetlights, until they're off the main thoroughfare.
"Of course, there are always several cop cars following. You have to have several, because the [prostitutes are] cognizant of cars behind them. They watch the mirror to see if it's the same car that stays behind. If it is, they'll just say, 'Stop the car. I'm getting out.' So the cop stops the car and they get out. That's it. No deal.
"There are a number of different signals that we use for 'The case is made.' At that time we'll have a marked police unit come up and stop them, like a regular traffic stop, get the prostitute out, tell her she's under arrest for prostitution, and put her in the back of the police car."
We're talking in Duncan's new office, on the second floor of the police headquarters at 14th and Broadway. He's getting ready to repaint the dun-green walls, but first he needs to cover over the holes where his predecessors hammered in hooks for their family photos. The place could use new carpeting.
Since 1996 he's been running the vice unit for the sdpd from three floors above. This month, he was reassigned to take charge of the Special Investigations Unit, a surveillance unit that investigates long-term and serious crimes.
A detective at vice, he says, is more an entry-level type job, an assignment for the new and the young.
"The reason is it requires nighttime hours. They work from 4:30 in the afternoon till 2:30, 3:00 in the morning. And they're dealing strictly with misdemeanor crimes, pretty much, generally either involving prostitution or ABC [Alcoholic Beverage Control Department] type violations. They're on the street constantly."
Prostitution, Duncan hastens to point out, is by no means the only focus of the unit's attentions. There are 34 officers in the unit, including ten detectives and two sergeants on nights, ten detectives and two sergeants on days. As the lieutenant in charge, Duncan has spent more time at city hall than on El Cajon Boulevard. Prostitution is just the most obvious of dozens of jobs that have somehow crept under the umbrella of vice. There's bookmaking and gambling, and other police-regulated businesses such as nude and topless bars, licensing restaurants for liquor, licensing users of burglar alarms, licensing tow trucks.
But Duncan doesn't forget vice's core mission. "If you look back around the turn of the century, we were called the Morals Squad. Especially during the Prohibition era, then it was very strict controls."
A hundred years later, the unit's prime task is still prostitution. And Duncan says there's nothing pretty about it. People who think of Julia Roberts in Pretty Woman when they think of the oldest profession, have got it all wrong.
"There was a woman working East San Diego area last year who had an ulcer on her arm that went from mid-bicep to her wrist, from injecting heroin, and she smelled like dead flesh. In the pictures of it that we have, it's unbelievable that a person would even be alive and have that kind of an open wound. It was massive. And she is a prostitute. That's how she's getting her money for her heroin. And she's still injecting into that ulceration. And a couple of times the vice detectives didn't know her. They'd pick her up, to try and work a deal on a prostitution case...and here's this woman, and she wears a long-sleeved jacket or shirt sleeve. Just disgusting. Not to mention all the disease they're involved with on a regular basis."
Some young detectives balk. "They don't want to be involved in some of this stuff," says Duncan. "They say, 'You want me to go out and try and arrest the prostitutes? I'll do that. Or if you want me to make sure that the bars aren't serving minors? Then I'll do that, but I don't want to be involved in checking a massage parlor, or checking an escort service, or going into an [adult] bookstore and making sure that the customers aren't in there masturbating...' "