Local groups battle prostitution

Joanna Dornfeld

Nearly 10 years ago, Linda Kolkind found a murdered prostitute on the street by her home in Powderhorn Park.

The prostitute was 40 years old and college educated. But she was unable to escape prostitution because she was addicted to drugs.

Up until that time, Kolkind had been able to live in Powderhorn Park and ignore the crime around her, she said.

“I just thought if it could happen to her, it could happen to anybody,” said Kolkind, who co-founded the Southside Prostitution Task Force in 1993.

In the last 15 years, prostitution has gone unnoticed by many Minneapolis residents, said Minneapolis police Officer Matt Wente. The Minneapolis Community Response Team has worked with neighborhood groups to stem prostitution over the last five years, he said.

“Until society doesn’t want this going on Ö we’re going to be chasing our tails, even though it is necessary,” Wente said.

Prostitution is a “livability” crime – a crime that affects the quality of life in a neighborhood. Officers respond when they receive complaints from neighborhood residents, said Minneapolis police Sgt. Dale Burns.

Wente said many Minnesotans who haven’t been personally affected by prostitution don’t think it’s a problem.

Minneapolis’ 3rd Precinct – including Powderhorn Park – has the highest number of prostitution arrests in the city.

Street prostitution was not the only problem in Kolkind’s
neighborhood. Nearby, 11 brothels posing as legitimate saunas served men from all over the metro area. In 1993, residents worked together to close a sauna on Lake Street without police assistance.

“We truly are the ones who live with prostitution 24 hours a day next to the women,” Kolkind said.

The residents formed the Southside Prostitution Task Force, which closed seven of the 11 saunas – some more than once.

“The way you shut down a sauna is you affect the income,” Kolkind said.

The task force purchased a 1979 Dodge minivan and parked it in front of a sauna with a dummy inside.

Johns – men who solicit prostitutes – didn’t visit the sauna because they thought they were being watched, Kolkind said.

The group also used the van as a moving billboard. They painted it with anti-prostitution slogans and drove through the neighborhood looking for johns.

“Only if the blood was rushing somewhere else could you miss that van,” Kolkind said.

The group chased johns until they left the neighborhood, and they shined a spotlight on cars after men had picked up a prostitute, she said.

The task force also wrote down license plate numbers of johns driving through the neighborhood and turned them over to police.

Police couldn’t charge the men with crimes because they had not witnessed them, but they sent letters to the vehicles’ owners warning their vehicles had been seen in the area and the drivers were
suspected of solicitation.

The group also handed out condoms, socks, mittens and candy to prostitutes.

“We had a relationship with the women on the street,” Kolkind said. “They either loved us or hated us.”

One prostitute would honk the horn of a car she was in to catch the attention of the task force.

“The bottom line is these women hate these men,” she said.

The task force dissolved in 1998. Former members now share what they learned with other residents trying to rid their neighborhoods of prostitution.

Residents reclaim the streets

Dee Tvedt, a Stevens Square resident, said she has been solicited for sex while walking near her home and has found condoms and needle wrappers in the gutters.

In 1991, her neighborhood group started a citizens patrol to assist police by alerting them to crime. Between six and 10 residents clad in yellow vests canvas the neighborhood sporadically throughout the week. The residents travel in groups of two or three and act as extra sets of eyes and ears for the police.

Each group carries a cell phone to keep in contact with one another and to call police if necessary.

When the citizens patrol began targeting prostitution, the residents stood on opposite corners from the prostitutes and watched them. The prostitutes would often become uncomfortable and move on.

“It’s a very passive way of dealing with the problem,” Tvedt said.

“When we were bolder and younger we carried cameras and took pictures,” she said. “We find it very crucial to identify people.”

In the group’s patrol office, photographs of johns caught soliciting in the neighborhood four years ago remain.

When prostitution was at its peak, the neighborhood association worked with local police to arrest street prostitutes and johns in sting operations.

Tvedt said that while prostitution in the neighborhood has steadily declined over the past four years, there is no way to know when and if it will return. Tvedt found a condom in the gutter in January.

Tvedt and the citizens patrol also worked with officers from the Community Response Team to target street-level prostitution, using decoy operations to arrest prostitutes and johns.

Officers pose as both prostitutes and johns on street corners. When they are propositioned, other officers in the area arrest the prostitute or john.

Wente said Minneapolis police have arrested as many as 15 johns in one night on one corner near Lake Street.

Alternative sentencing

Minneapolis neighborhood groups have also taken an interest in the sentencing of prostitutes and johns.

“They were realizing that the Hennepin County Court wasn’t effective,” said Amy Schwab, Powderhorn Park Restorative Justice Program project coordinator.

The Powderhorn Park and Stevens Square neighborhoods worked with the Hennepin County Court and Minneapolis police to establish “restorative justice” programs in their neighborhoods.

Program administrators sentence people who have committed misdemeanor offenses ranging from solicitation to burglary to assault.

Approximately 97 percent of the Powderhorn Park Restorative Justice Program cases in 2000 were prostitution-related.

Men caught soliciting can choose to meet with community members rather than go through a trial in a traditional court setting.

The program requires men to publicly acknowledge they committed a crime. If they finish their sentences and don’t reoffend within a year, the offenses are removed from their records.

Sentences range from working in a neighborhood garden to taking HIV tests to writing letters of
apology to their wives.

The men have contributed more than 2,000 hours of community service and donated more than $11,000 to local organizations.

“It’s kind of a give and take,” said Richard Hopper, Hennepin County Community Court judge. “They pay back the community through community service.”

Approximately 97 percent of the men arrested for solicitation who go through the program aren’t arrested again, Hopper said.

But it doesn’t mean they’re completely reformed.

“It means that they now solicit women in saunas or call services that give them less chance of being caught,” Hopper said. “The reason we do this is not just for the sake of the johns but for the sake of the community.”

Joanna Dornfeld welcomes comments at [email protected]