October 26, 2012

Police won't release names of Portland 'johns'

Portland police deny a request by the Press Herald seeking names of men charged.

By Randy Billings rbillings@pressherald.com
Staff Writer

PORTLAND – The Portland Police Department is refusing to release the names of men who have been arrested or summonsed for soliciting a prostitute.

The denial comes as police work with Parkside residents on ways to let judges know how prostitution affects their quality of life. Prostitution has been an open problem in the Parkside neighborhood for years.

The Portland Press Herald filed a Freedom of Access Act request with police for the names of people arrested or summonsed for soliciting a prostitute for the last five years.

Police attorney Bethann Poliquin said in a letter the request was denied because the department doesn't have the court outcome of each case. Without that information, the release may compromise an ongoing investigation and be "an unwarranted invasion of privacy," she said.

Lawyers representing the alleged "johns" in the Kennebunk Zumba prostitution case made a similar argument, citing an invasion of privacy, against releasing those names, but a judge ultimately ruled the list should be made public.

Poliquin did not respond to an email Wednesday requesting an interview. She returned a call Thursday, leaving a voicemail saying that she should be in meetings all day and would not be available to comment.

There have been 24 "johns" arrested on prostitution-related charges in Portland since 2008, including eight this year, according to police data. During the same period, 22 women have been arrested for prostitution, including two this year.

It is a long-standing problem in Parkside, a dense neighborhood located near Deering Oaks park and Interstate 295 where various efforts -- from stings to new anti-cruising laws -- have attempted to tamp down the problem. The Parkside Neighborhood Association, formed in response to rampant prostitution and drug use, has made gains over the years, but prostitution continues to be a major concern for residents.

Recently, the deputy district attorney asked the association to write up an "impact statement" describing how prostitution affects their quality of life. That statement could then be included in case files against the alleged "johns" and perhaps sway judges to impose jail time.

Deputy District Attorney Meg Elam said harsher punishment for "johns" is needed, because they are the ones creating demand for prostitutes -- and prostitutes are often the victims of human trafficking.

"If you are the market that creates sex traffic victims, then you should go to jail," said Elam, who was attending a human trafficking forum in Auburn on Thursday.

Senior Lead Officer Daniel Townsend said he receives a lot of prostitution-related complaints through the city's Text-A Tip program.

Women often complain about being followed by men in cars, according to PNA President Emma Holder, who has been followed on a few occasions.

"The prostitutes aren't bothering us, it's the johns that are driving around like sharks inappropriately," Holder said. "It's creepy."

A few years ago, resident Susan Veligor grew sick of prostitutes and pimps communicating through whistling. One day, Veligor confronted a prostitute in the middle of State Street, but the woman's pimp rushed to her defense.

"He stripped his shirt off," Veligor said Thursday. "He was ready to punch me."

That never happened, she said, because neighbors came out to see what the ruckus was about.

Resident Chelsea Miller, who has been followed on occasion, said a PNA board member was helping to set up a neighborhood block party when a "john" propositioned her. Another time, Miller saw a "john" pick up a prostitute.

Engaging a prostitute is a misdemeanor and carries a fine of up to $1,000, Elam said.

By crafting an impact statement to be included in cases where "johns" are prosecuted, residents hope that judges will level harsh punishments and police will make the names of the "johns" public.

"It's becoming evident that it's highly embarrassing to have your name released," said Veligor, referring to the Kennebunk Zumba prostitution case that continues to unfold.

Residents say prostitutes are often arrested and make the city's public arrest log, but the "johns" rarely become known, because plea-bargains sometimes reduce the charges to disorderly conduct.

"It happens that this (Zumba instructor) had a record of all the johns, so they became public," Miller said. "But that's not usually the case."

Residents were both puzzled and frustrated upon hearing that police refused to provide the "john" information to the newspaper.

Holder believes police should issue news releases whenever a "john" is arrested.

"It's frustrating," she said, noting the group sought similar information and was denied. "We hope that will change."

Staff Writer Randy Billings can be contacted at 791-6346 or at:

rbillings@mainetoday.com

Twitter: @randybillings

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