Seattle City Attorney Pete Holmes is serving his second term as the only elected city attorney in Washington state. He won re-election to a third term on November 7. He supervises an office of about 100 lawyers and 85 legal professionals as Seattle’s misdemeanor prosecutor and has sole supervisory control of the city’s litigation. Heidi Sargent is an Assistant City Attorney at the Seattle City Attorney’s Office, and the liaison to Seattle Police Department’s Vice and High-Risk Victims Unit.
We asked them about how they’re focusing on the demand side of prostitution in Seattle, and what they would say to other cities that want to get involved.
Q. When did the light bulb go on for you to start working on strategies to reduce demand for illegal paid sex?
PETE: In my first term, my membership on the Domestic Violence Prevention Council helped me understand the relationship between domestic violence and prostitution, especially the power dynamic. From there, I was introduced to organizations like the Organization of Prostitution Survivors (OPS) and its Executive Director, Debra Boyer, who helped me understand how this illegal industry operates and how we might do a better job of limiting its success.
Q. Not many people talk about the link between prostitution and domestic violence. Can you elaborate?
PETE: Well, in the simplest terms, what’s in common is the power dynamic. Sometimes you hear some of the same comments, like “boys will be boys,” whether they’re buying sex or roughing up their wife. That kind of dismissive language reflects an attitude, a gender bias, and a power dynamic that are very similar tenets that run throughout the crime of domestic violence and the crime of prostitution.
When you say “smart on crime,” it’s more than just an epithet. It means understanding the economic drivers in crimes. What are the emotional and cultural drivers? And when you understand them better, then you can be more effective at not just enforcing against criminal violations, but also making it difficult for the industry to advance. Understanding the cultural, power, and economic dynamics that underlie both domestic violence and prostitution shows how similar they are.
HEIDI: Sexual assault, domestic violence, and prostitution are all points on the continuum of gender-based violence. The similarities, like the pimp-prostitute relationship, are very similar to the domestic violence relationship between spouses. It’s about power and control, and the use of violence, threats, isolation, and intimidation to establish that power and maintain that control. The relationship between the prostituted person and the pimp, and the prostituted person and the buyer have a lot in common.
Q. It sounds like you are filing fewer charges against prostituted people and more against buyers. Why did you make that decision and how is it working?
PETE: Fortunately, in our case, there was very early alignment, at least with the Seattle Police Department (SPD) Command Staff and my office. When we started, Seattle was still very much suffering from the impact of the Great Recession. We were in budget-cutting mode. And so that informed every policy determination the city government was making.
Consequently, my discussions with SPD were about how to flip the status quo within the confines of existing scarce resources. We have flipped that without new resources, and without changing the laws. It was gratifying that we actually had buy-in early on. Effectively, our office placed a moratorium on filing prostitution charges. And then we were focused much more in looking at both our track record and our policies with regard to what was then called patronizing.
HEIDI: The other side of that equation is, after you address the issues around charging prostituted people, how do you get increased law enforcement activity and prosecution for the actual harm perpetrators, the sex buyers?
That’s where resources come in. From a law enforcement perspective, it’s cheaper and easier to go after the prostituted people. They’re standing out there on the street—at least before the internet—easy to identify, easy to pick up. It’s basically a one-officer operation.
In contrast, buyer-focused operations are more complex, more time intensive, and require much greater resources. In this case, the buyers are lurking, and you have a female undercover who is at risk, who is in danger, because prostitution is inherently dangerous and violent. There has to be an entire team supporting her to make sure she’s safe when she puts herself in the way of buyers. So that takes a lot of money, time, and staff. And for Seattle, we’re lucky we have a vice unit. A tiny jurisdiction may not even have one officer assigned to this.
But there is an answer to this problem, at least here in Washington. By state statute, there are substantial mandatory fees and assessments for this crime. For example, first-time offenders are fined $1,500, which is used for prostitution prevention and intervention. Half of that money goes to services for the victims of prostitution. And 48 percent goes to law enforcement to fund their enforcement efforts in this area. And there are other fees and fines as well. So, this can be a self-funding undertaking, if you have the laws in place, which we did.
Q. Heidi, tell me about how you work with the Seattle Police Department’s High-Risk Victims’ Unit and Vice Unit.
HEIDI: Collaboration and coordination between agencies is critical here. Working with law enforcement on a day-in and day-out basis you learn the ordinary operations they do to fight commercial sexual exploitation. But we can also work with them on other innovative ways to approach this problem. One of the things that SPD has been doing in coordination with the City Attorney’s Office and non-governmental service organizations is coordinating enforcement operations, where—even though they have flipped the emphasis to the buyers—they still do enforcement of prostitution. But it’s with a new goal: rather than punish prostituted people and re-victimize them, we provide services to assist them in exiting the life.
One of the things our Vice/High Risk Victims Unit came up with was to have coordinated operations with organizations that provide services for survivors. When a person is arrested for suspected prostitution, they are no longer booked into jail, which used to be the practice. Instead they are taken directly to the service provider’s location, where they can meet with somebody one-on-one and are offered services.
That’s an example of the type of coordination and innovative practice that we are doing here.
Read the second half of the interview »
The views and opinions expressed in this interview are that of the interviewee and do not necessarily represent the views and opinions of Demand Abolition.
About the Spotlight Series
Across the world, people are doing powerful, innovative work to end prostitution and sex trafficking. Our Spotlight Series of blog posts features leaders in the anti-demand and abolitionist movements. We want to showcase these essential contributions to the fight against sexual abuse. The idea is simple: we’ll be asking people a few questions and publish their verbatim responses.
Read more in our Spotlight Series: Leaders in the Movement »
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