Sex worker advocates are calling on the San Francisco Police Department to end its so-called “sex worker abatement unit” in the Mission District along Shotwell and Capp Streets.

Around two dozen protesters gathered in front of the Mission Police Station on Monday just past noon, chanting “S-F-P-D, let sex workers be!” and carrying signs that said things like, “OUTLAW POVERTY, NOT PROSTITUTES.”

Mission Captain Gaetano Caltagirone formed the abatement unit this summer in response to a growing chorus of discontent among residents along Capp and Shotwell. The four officers in the unit, he said in August, have focused on arresting and charging pimps and their customers, commonly referred to as “johns.”

Sex workers, the captain said, would be detained and directed to the Department of Public Health Law Enforcement Assisted Diversion (LEAD) program, which routes low-level drug offenders and prostitutes to social services, instead of charging them with a crime.

The advocates claimed at Monday’s rally that the abatement unit is creating hostile working conditions for sex workers in the area, and conflicts with the San Francisco Police Department’s policy of decriminalizing sex work, as well as the District Attorney’s announcement that it would not be prosecuting people for involvement in sex work if they are witnesses of sexual violence or other crimes. The protesters, however, said that sex workers are still being “arrested.” 

SFPD spokesperson Officer Robert Rueca said that, since August, 51 sex workers have been cited for prostitution and 16 were booked on outstanding warrants. All were provided with information about the diversion program, Rueca said, although he could not say how many were actually diverted. “Our focus is on providing sex workers access to resources and aid, particularly if they have been abused, victimized and are being trafficked,” Rueca said. 

“Sex workers are our neighbors,” said Tessa Brown of the RAD Mission Neighborhood, a group formed to counter the Mission residents who frequently complain about sex work near their residences. Sex workers “work in this neighborhood — we do not accept them being arrested [and] we do not accept our neighbors who are gentrifiers calling the cops on sex workers.”

The rally was the latest in what has proven a steady source of tension in the neighborhood for at least a decade. On the one hand, a sect of residents of the so-called Central Mission, mainly homeowners with families, have voiced their discontent over the crime they claim prostitution has attracted to the four or so blocks along Shotwell and Capp streets — including shootings and other physical threats to their safety.

On the other hand, sex worker advocates argue that heavy-handed law-enforcement action does little more than harass women trying to earn a living and ends up diverting them into areas where they are more likely to experience danger. And advocates argue that reducing the perceived ancillary crime could be accomplished by legalizing sex work.

Rachael West, an advocate with the U.S. PROStitutes Collective, also said a closer look needs to be taken at the sources of crime. “Prostitution gets blamed for all the problems in the neighborhood,” she said.  

The rally came to a climax when demonstrators tried to enter the police station to deliver a letter to Caltagirone but were blocked by officers standing at the door. A momentary struggle ensued as protesters and police officers struggled over the door — although officers were eventually successful in locking it.

“Let us in!” the demonstrators chanted as the door was barricaded. West eventually slipped the letter through the door.

Last December, Supervisor Hillary Ronen’s office procured funding for a van for outreach workers to bring social services to the sex workers on Shotwell and Capp. This, she said, was an alternative to law-enforcement actions, which have traditionally made sex workers skittish, even when reporting violent crimes committed against them.

Ronen said this would address the “root” of the problem. But for some residents, that was moving too slowly: This spring, around 60 residents sounded off during a meeting with her and the captain. The meeting led to officials entertain outlandish ideas like shutting down to traffic and nonresidents the “hot spot” blocks during evening hours. The Sex Worker Abatement Unit was formed in the months following this meeting.

On Monday afternoon, after it became apparent the door would not be opened and the captain would not provide the protesters with an audience, West said: “Well, they’ll be hearing from us again.”