East Sprague Avenue’s reputation as Spokane’s seedy red-light district could change, if the City Council approves a new law allowing police to impound vehicles used for activities related to prostitution.
The expanded authority is specific to the area surrounding East Sprague, which has many more prostitution-related calls and incidents than any other part of the city. Officers will be allowed to seize the vehicle of someone arrested for patronizing a prostitute or promoting prostitution. On top of costs associated with impoundment, towing and storing the vehicle, according to state law, violators could be fined $500 – or $2,500 if the prostitute is a minor.
The council will vote on the new law Jan. 12.
Councilman Jon Snyder, who chairs the city’s Public Safety Committee, said police “are actually pretty limited” in their abilities to arrest people soliciting prostitutes.
“We almost have to catch things in the act,” he said. “The normal process for getting a john’s car impounded is pretty hard to do. Multiple circumstances have to be met for that to happen.”
Still, when the police department pulled prostitution-related statistics and plotted them on a map, Sprague Avenue glowed, from the East Central neighborhood into downtown. Council documents say the issue “continues to plague” the area.
“No surprise, this is an area that has a problem,” Snyder said.
According to a report by Tom Michaud, a crime analyst with Spokane police, the Sprague area had 41 “prostitution incidents” in the last five years. Citywide, including Sprague, there were 105 such incidents in the same time period.
East Sprague also had many more prostitution-related calls for service, which don’t necessarily lead to arrest or contact with a suspect, during the same five-year span. With 317, East Sprague accounted for almost half of all such calls citywide.
The area affected by the proposed change in law in the East Central neighborhood is between the Hamilton Street overpass and Fiske Street, and the railroad tracks and Interstate 90. State law requires the city to post signs declaring the area as one of “high prostitution activity.”
Deanna Hanley, president of the East Sprague Business Association, said business owners in the area are excited about changes in the area – including big investments from the city and the recent upgrades to what is now called Playfair Commerce Park. Prostitution, however, remains a problem.
“We can’t seem to eradicate it. It just is so prevalent. It’s always there,” Hanley said.
The $32 million in proposed East Sprague projects by the city in the next few years should help “make them shy away from the area,” said Jack Strong, who moved his computer business, Strong Solutions, to East Sprague six years ago.
“Especially as the weather warms up, we do see it,” he said. “The busier the street is, the more they stay on the outskirts, which is part of the reason why we’re trying to improve the area.”
Hanley said many business owners believe Spokane residents aren’t the problem.
“A lot of the johns are from out of town,” she said. “We see a lot of Idaho plates.”
Snyder echoed Hanley, noting that the policy change is “focused on the johns and customers of prostitution.”
“It’s not necessarily just the residents of town. I’ve seen trucks that looked like they just pulled off the freeway,” said Snyder, who had an office on the street when he was the publisher of a local outdoor magazine.
Monique Cotton, police spokeswoman, couldn’t confirm that most people patronizing a prostitute on East Sprague aren’t from Spokane, but she didn’t dismiss it either, especially considering the anecdotes came from those who work there.
“Neighbors are our eyes and ears. They can report an incident so we can effectively respond,” she said, adding that the problem can only be effectively addressed by a “coordinated community effort.”
“This (new law) will make it a little more difficult for someone,” she said. “If individuals are aware that there is the possibility of getting their car towed, they will not engage in this behavior.”
Cotton said the project was beginning in a targeted area because it has the most severe problem, but it could become a citywide enforcement tool.
“We’re starting small,” she said. “This could be a much larger initiative if we have the support of the community and support of the council.”
Snyder said council members are considering expanding the impoundment provision.
“When we have a new policy, we need to pilot it somewhere,” Snyder said. “Then we can look at expanding it.”
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