Two more no-prostitute zones

Thanks to a new ordinance, Pierce County can ban prostitutes and their customers from two problematic areas along the outskirts of Tacoma.

The measure allows law enforcement officers to arrest men and women whom judges have ordered to stay out of the areas, even if they are not soliciting new customers or looking for prostitutes.

“It makes our job easier and it makes it tougher for them to avoid us,” said Pierce County sheriff’s Lt. Larry Minturn, who supervises the department’s drug and vice unit.

With the new “Stay Out of Areas of Prostitution” ordinance – known as SOAP – the county joins Tacoma, Fife and Lakewood in defining geographic areas that prohibit prostitution-related activities.

“We need the same tools or else we end up being the dumping ground,” sheriff’s spokesman Ed Troyer said.

The County Council unanimously approved the ordinance in March. Boundaries of the new areas were approved recently.

The two areas cover a strip of Pacific Avenue from the Tacoma city limits to the Roy Y and a square pocket southeast of the city limits from McKinley Avenue to Waller Road, South 72nd to South 84th streets.

The order prohibits the person from being in the areas for any reason except between 9 a.m. and noon. A violation is considered a gross misdemeanor and punishable by up to a year in prison and a $5,000 fine.

Under the ordinance, District Court judges can impose the stay-out order at arraignment or at sentencing.

“We felt it was important to give the court authority to do it at that time,” said Craig Adams, the sheriff’s legal adviser.

Tacoma, Lakewood and Fife police officials say their SOAP ordinances have had an impact.

Lakewood has seen a 70 percent to 80 percent drop in prostitution-related arrests and complaints, Police Chief Larry Saunders said. Tacoma officers had 57 SOAP-related calls in 2006.

“We definitely need it,” Tacoma police officer Chris Travis said. “It helps us do our job. It helps us to be able to contact people.”

Fife police have caught a few repeat prostitutes in their SOAP areas but not a lot, Lt. Tony Budzius said.

“Those are far and few between,” he said. “Usually, they learn after the first or second time.”

The agencies usually need to conduct undercover operations to catch prostitutes and customers in the act.

Once those people have SOAP orders, patrol officers can arrest them for trying to conduct their business.

“You don’t have to do undercover operations anymore,” Saunders said. “SOAP takes a much stronger stance with a lower level of proof.”

The orders are just one tool to combat prostitution locally, officials said.

The other pieces include undercover sting operations, a day-long school for men caught soliciting a prostitute and the Promise program, which aims to get prostitutes off the streets and provide them with job training.

Despite the success of SOAP orders, Travis said, they don’t stop everyone because many of the women sell themselves for money to feed drug habits, something they can’t resist.

“There are people out there who aren’t going to be abide by it,” he said.