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Manpower is no object – for the right crimes

There is little that exposes our priorities quite so nakedly as a sensational vice bust.

Take the raids on the alleged prostitution rings at local “spas” this week.

At a time when cops are more or less constantly telling us how understaffed they are, scores and scores of officers from every local, state and federal agency in the area suited up for the big game, raiding eight of the most obviously not-legit “spas” on the planet. Those raids followed a yearlong investigation overseen by a judge and special prosecutor, and employing undercover informants – doing who knows what, with police sanction. It was even given an impressive, martial name, perfect for displaying on the TV news: Operation Red Light.

The full-court press of resource-challenged law enforcement was matched only by the full-court press of resource-challenged media organizations, falling over themselves to do the most, the best, the first, the biggest, the most breathlessly self-congratulatory job on a story full of implied sex and utterly devoid of significance. One station put four reporters on the story. Four reporters. Typically, only the first snow of winter attracts such journalistic firepower.

So much for our renewed focus on the actual stealing of things.

It would be interesting to know exactly how much money was spent – in this budgetary era when a single city arts employee is deemed too expensive; when police are constantly pledging to try something new to keep up with the overwhelming tide of property crime. How much money did we spend on busting those spas and what did we get for the expense?

As the police blew their trumpets Tuesday, they emphasized just how many people and agencies participated. Some 200 law enforcement officers were involved. Every uniform in the region was represented. Police departments from Airway Heights, Spokane, Spokane Valley, Liberty Lake, Moses Lake and the Kalispel Tribe. The Spokane County Sheriff’s Office. The State Patrol and state gambling commission. The Border Patrol and Homeland Security.

And the coverage! It started as “breaking news,” of course, and went on and on. TV stations got it from every angle – including B-roll of women scuttling out of the spas, and “exclusive” video of masked officers storming the spas – and provided detailed maps of the spa locations and quotes from everyone in town, including a man who opined that the girls working at a certain spa were better-looking than your average Sprague girl. Twitter was atwitter, as reporters and producers tweeted giddily about what an awesome job they’d all done.

And, the next morning, there it was at the top of this paper’s front page, too.

Eight suspected brothels were raided, and the homes of six owners were searched. Among the places busted were “spas” that have been in operation for years and years and years – some of them seemed somewhat obviously like they might be not entirely on the up and up. Like it might not have been such a news flash on Tuesday, July 10, 2012, that maybe there was something illegal going on in there.

Is the community safer now? Of the problems and concerns and sadness and desperation that sit at the middle of the whole enterprise of prostitution, is it impossible that an aggressive, made-for-TV police raid is any kind of solution? It seems designed as a big shame show, a spectacle, an investigative exercise, full of sound and fury.

The police can’t do everything, and they get understandably tired of people who complain about this. As I watched the coverage of the raids, I thought about the street in front of my home. Which sparkles these days with shiny little gems of auto glass. It’s one break-in away from looking like a twinkling pathway in Oz. People are constantly driving by with a taped-up hole where one of their car windows used to be. This is not just my street – police say car break-ins are up about 40 percent this year.

As someone who parks on the street, I have become familiar with seeing that smashed car window in the morning: You call in a report to Crime Check, call your insurance company, call the window repair company, and kiss whatever was taken good-bye.

You do not ever speak to an officer of the law. Or at least I haven’t, in four separate instances.

That’s probably just the way it is. No one should expect a cop to come solve their personal little crime.

They can’t do everything, after all.

But when it comes to a vice crime, there’s always time, money, hundreds of officers – and lots of cameras.

Shawn Vestal can be reached at (509) 459-5431 or Follow him on Twitter at @vestal13.