The Ho Patrol, the Ohio Street Watch Dogs and the Kentucky Street Watch Owls are three of Vallejo’s neighborhood watch groups that have one thing in common.
“They’re irritated that prostitution is impacting their quality of life,” said program director John Allen of the Fighting Back Partnership, a non-profit organization that trains and sponsors the neighborhood block watch groups.
The number of Vallejo’s police has dwindled down to 89 officers to patrol the city’s 53 square miles and there has been limited resources to confront the prostitution industry.
“Driving through downtown is really sad,” said Vallejo Councilmember Erin Hannigan at the city council meeting on Tuesday. “If they’re not selling sex, they’re hitting you up for money or they’re looking for a quick fix.”
In response, residents are stepping up to protect their territory and push prostitution out of the city.
“It’s a city with 117,000 people, just a little bigger than Davis,” Allen said. “It’s always had a small town feel. Now, we’re really promoting that.”
There’s a sense of frustration that residents are starting to feel about prostitution, and they’re using that to mobilize, Allen said.
Fighting Back started the neighborhood block watch program in Nov. 2009 with 27 different groups. Now, there are 216 neighborhood block watch groups that patrol Vallejo. They divided the city into quadrants along I-80 and Tennessee Street.
The groups have been trained to aid the police by gathering information on suspicious persons or activities in their neighborhoods, though they have no actual authority.
“We’re the eyes and ears of the community,” Allen said. “[The police] have to respond to higher priority calls and to the more pressing issues. We’re handling that by having the community take a more proactive approach.”
Some of the neighborhood watch groups have been confronting the sex workers and their customers. However, Fighting Back has not formally trained these groups in handling the issue of prostitution.
“We at Fighting Back, we’re cautioning them not to do it as of yet,” Allen said. “We wanted to start a program, but they did not want to wait.”
This program will be the prostitution task force, introduced by Mayor Osby Davis at the city council meeting. It will be a partnership between the city, Fighting Back Partnership, the police and other community organizations to take on prostitution.
“There are a number of short-term and long-term solutions that we are working on,” Osby said. “We think there are a number of short-term items that we can do right away.”
Some of these solutions include installing cameras around the city, especially in areas with higher rates of prostitution, which the police can install within 30 to 60 days.
There is also a plan for an electronic billboard downtown, where blurred pictures of sex workers will be displayed.
“I think the effort of the mayor’s task force, with [residents’] help, is going to be successful,” Hannigan said. She is a member of the Kentucky Street Watch Owls.
The city council will review the issue again on March 22.
While the task force was applauded by many attendees at the council meeting, not everyone showed support.
“I think it’s time that we legalize it like in Nevada,” said Burke Hill, a resident who spoke to the city council during the open floor session. “It’s a lot safer for the women. You don’t have a pimp that’s going to beat the women up and kill them.”
Nevada, which legalizes prostitution in rural areas, has been handling its own issues with prostitution.
Senator Harry Reid (D-Nev.) has been recently trying to gain support to ban prostitution from the entire state, not just in big cities like Las Vegas and Reno. He has been speaking to various political groups about prostitution being a deterrent for businesses.
“If we want to attract businesses to Nevada, that puts people back to work, the time has come for us to outlaw prostitution,” Reid told the Nevada state assembly last month.