We’re trying out new Mission crime maps, an interactive Dotspotting feature designed by Stamen as part of a Knight Challenge Grant. This is an experiment, so if you have any suggestions on features you would like the maps to have, please add them to the comments. Icons designed by Colleen Paz.

A walk down Capp Street during the day reveals a street that alternates between quiet and rowdy, industrial and residential. Victorians sit between auto repair shops, woodworkers and community organizations. But a quick look at the ground reveals what Capp is like at night. Used condoms and wrappers are everywhere.

“This is the place to find prostitutes at night,” says Ian, a customer at the Uptown bar at 17th and Capp. SFPD records agree.

Even as police run decoys to combat prostitution, prostitutes and their customers continue to find each other on Capp, Shotwell and South Van Ness. The arrest numbers show this as well: For the week of July 29 to August 4, 12 people were arrested in the Mission for prostitution – leading the arrest figures.  This, however, does not reflect crimes committed. Using a decoy to make arrests for prostitution is obviously easier than using a decoy to make an arrest for robbery, which often leads the crime statistics.

Residents often wonder why police can’t clean up the area when everyone knows about both the crime and its location. “I remember a few years ago, residents on Capp were so upset they were throwing rocks and so forth at johns’ cars,” says Jeff Snipes, a professor of criminal justice. “That seemed to simmer things down temporarily.”

Social scientists say the area’s notoriety for prostitution is part of the problem. Prostitutes and their clients are complete strangers; the only thing that connects them is knowing where to find one another.

A study by Steve D.Levitt at the University of Chicago showed that street prostitution is a highly location-specific crime because prostitutes want to be easily recognizable by potential clients. Every major city in the world has a specific concentrated place where street prostitution occurs.

Take the client from the Excelsior who recently showed up in Community Court for soliciting a prostitute. The jurors — his peers — asked why he drove to the Mission to find a prostitute. The Mission is just where prostitutes are, he said.

It’s also where the police are. Plainclothes decoys often work on Capp, South Van Ness and Shotwell, according to Sgt. Mike Andraychak. That’s how the Excelsior client got picked up.

Arrests keep the activity down, but they don’t put a complete stop to it. For one thing, neither clients nor prostitutes run a high risk of landing in jail.

Only one out of nine arrests of for prostitution results in jail time, according to Levitt’s study. “The DA’s office doesn’t take this seriously. Prostitutes are in and out of jail within hours,” says Snipes.

The San Francisco District Attorney’s office takes this very seriously, says Seth Steward, communications officer for the DA. It’s just that prostitutes are so vulnerable to victimization. “The DA is focused on diversion efforts instead of prosecution,” he says.

The men who hire women for sex also rarely land in jail. First-time offenders have the choice to complete a $1,000 program aimed at avoiding repeat offenses. If the program is completed, the incident is cleared from the client’s record.

Over 95 percent of those arrested for soliciting a prostitute are first-time offenders, according to Levitt’s study.

The study showed that the average street prostitute is arrested only once for every 450 encounters. The chance of an average john getting caught is only one in 2,000.

And clients know how to avoid arrest.

“Smart guys will ask the girl to get a drink at a bar first,” says Marcos, from a liquor store at 19th and Capp.

“That way they avoid police.”

Octavio Lopez Raygoza

Octavio Lopez Raygoza hails from Los Angeles. Lured by the nightlife, local eateries, and famous chilaquiles, Raygoza enjoys reporting in the Mission District. Although he settled in downtown San Francisco,...

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  1. As bad as the issue is, it is a LOT better than what is used to be like. I lived on Capp between 17th and 18th for 8 years and it was much, much worse. As in it was crowded with hookers down the entire block. If I stood outside my door to smoke, they would yell at me to get back inside since I was scaring the johns from stopping.

  2. As someone who is a sex worker, the way this article attacks prostitution is disgusting. Arresting women who are young, poor, and often desperate, is not going to help anyone but the State. We sex workers need support from the community. We don’t harm anyone. Let us make a living, which for some of us is the only job of which we are capable. Take me as an example. I’m a 21 year old mentally disabled trans woman and a ccsf student. I am not capable of obtaining or sustaining a “real” job. Prostitution is the only thing keeping me off the streets and in school.

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