23rd Street merchants welcome RPD’s “john-shaming” campaign

23rd Street shops are busy with families shopping by day, but the corner outside Discolandia Market becomes a hotspot for johns seeking prostitutes when 4 p.m. strikes. Photo by Brett Murphy

23rd Street shops are busy with families shopping by day, but the corner outside Discolandia Market becomes a hotspot for johns seeking prostitutes when 4 p.m. strikes. Photo by Brett Murphy

Prostitution has long been a fixture on Richmond’s 23rd street business corridor. Until recently, police have focused on taking prostitutes off the street. But now they are launching a new tactic. In an effort to undercut demand, police are focusing on “johns” – the nickname sometimes given to male customers. Under its’ new  “john-shaming” campaign RPD publishes mug shots and identities of arrested suspects, splashing them across social media.

It’s a controversial method that has sparked legal and ethical debate, as some critics say it may unfairly damage the reputation of suspects who have not been proven to have committed any crime.

But none of those complaints can be heard from merchants along 23rd, who have dealt with prostitution for decades, and say they are just happy to see something resembling a permanent police presence in the area.

And nothing’s permanent like the Internet. “Everyone there is used to seeing temporary solutions, where things quiet down for a couple days then start back up again,” said Richmond Police Officer Yesenia Rogers, who has been leading the department’s anti-prostitution efforts on 23rd Street. “But what they really want is something ongoing.”

On Sept. 4, Richmond police busted 11 johns in a sting operation, immediately publishing the cyber scarlet letters on Facebook. Police have also mailed printed letters to the homes of suspects who have received warnings.

Read why Richmond police pivoted their strategy away from women.

The 23rd Street corridor, a vital Richmond business hub, is made up of several tightly packed pockets of small shops that include mechanics, bodegas and a variety of other retailers.

Sergio Rios, vice president of the 23rd Street Merchants’ Association and owner of Bob’s Cleaners, said he thinks the police department’s new focus on the area is great for business: “Less johns bothering my customers.”

As he spoke to this reporter, he pointed to a woman who had just passed by his storefront window. She was wearing tight shorts, a black eye, and flip-flops. “It’s a real problem,” he said.

Guevara Norberto, owner of Discolandia, a popular general store on the strip, said he’d like to post photos of johns right on his storefront.

Norberto and Mayra Camacho, manager of the Mexican restaurant El Tapatio, each said that although they have frequently reported the problem to police in the past, they haven’t always gotten a response.

Several merchants said they aren’t worried about any negative branding that might come to their business corridor through social media because the stores are small and the customers local. Their patrons know what’s going on regardless of online publicity.

“The customers come here for me, not the street’s ambiance or reputation,”  said Patrick McStravick, owner of Laverty’s Upholstery, which has been on 23rd street for 34 years.

While it is too early to assess the effectiveness of the john-shaming campaign, it doesn’t appear to have discouraged the prostitutes yet. As McStravick spoke, he gestured to a window where a woman in red shirt and black leggings walked past. She was not a customer. “There goes one now,” he said.

According to Richmond Police officer Rogers, RPD researched the impact of john-shaming before putting it into action.

Rogers said the preventative measure has shown success in other cities across the country—from “Operation Reveal” in Fresno to the small tourist town of Kennebunk, Maine. Next door, Oakland has shamed johns in billboards and a website gallery of mug shots.

But she realizes the problem has been out in the open for too long. Rogers said that a couple of years ago, when she was a plainclothes detective, a group of men on 23rd Street mistook her for a prostitute.

Patrick McStravick blamed the city’s 16.7 percent unemployment rate for prostitution’s foothold in Richmond. Likewise, Jim Sciarroni of Sciarroni Auto Body said the issue is bigger than anything a sting operation or public shaming can fix, and called for bureaucratic intervention from city council. “They should get off their butts, come down here, and see what’s going on.”

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