From left to right: Tessa Brown, Maxine Doogan, and Rachel West. Photo by Julian Mark

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.” 

Julian Mark

Julian grew up in the East Bay and moved to San Francisco in 2014. Before joining Mission Local, he wrote for the East Bay Express, the SF Bay Guardian, and the San Francisco Business Times.

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9 Comments

  1. Hillary Ronen is a disgrace as she continues to support illegal activity in the Mission that negatively affects the quality of life of San Francisco residents.

    If she really wants to support prostitution, she should just go ahead and support the legalization of brothels, rather than allowing the rampant crime and violence that street corner prostitution brings to our neighborhoods. That way SF can do a better job of monitoring the health and safety of sex workers as they do in Amsterdam.

    1. The threats to sex worker safety are largely the result of criminalization – any time government prohibitions on activities among consenting adults (drugs, prostitution, immigration, etc.) create a black market, this tends to attract violent crime.

      Legal brothels would help in theory – but if they’re restricted, over-regulated, and over-taxed, there will still be a flourishing black market for prostitution on the streets.

      Can SF politicians manage to legalize something without going ape on restrictions, regulations, and taxes? I’m not confident they can. Decriminalization may be a better solution at least in the short term.

  2. Caltagirone is doing a great job! Please keep up the patrols going. It has definitely helped us feel safer walking home not having to be propositioned every night. My kids feel a bit safer too.

  3. This group is the stupidest idiot crowd of nimrods ever! Ludicrous!! Listen, I have lived on Shotwell for 30+ years, and I raise kids here. The sex workers are victims. Period. Victims of pimps, organized crime, and drug rings. The Abatement squads are desperately needed to get this activity off the streets, save those women’s lives and preserve street safety. Sex work belongs indoors. Peirod. In safe interior spaces, with city licensure. I’d be extremely happy to have a sex worker host clients inside her apartment on my block. But not in the streets. The Johns cruise up and down all night with music blaring, they park in my driveway for fifteen minutes at a time, engine running, stinking up the block with exhaust, they always pee afterwards, they throw used condoms on my sidewalk stairs and plants. They throw needles. The workers have no place to use the toilet except in our driveways, and I have to clean up human feces on a weekly basis because the City can’t do it quickly enough. I often see 13 and 14 year olds girls walking and working out there. A 14 year old got raped by her pimp in front of my house in 2016. Had I not been awake with insomnia thanks to the engine running on the pimp’s car, she may have died. She was fourteen!

    And then my own 11 year old son and 14 year old daughter have to interact with these women giving oral sex on my steps at 6:30 am or 9:45 pm because those poor women are out there working 12 hour shifts. It’s wrong.

    Sex work is honorable. Street walking to procure sex clients is NOT.

    These women are victims. Any sex work who has to walk the streets is a victim and needs our help.

    To hell with these so called advocates. To hell with their psycho ignorance. It burns me up. THIS is why this city is falling apart.

    Finally, I DO support legalized regulated and safe prostitution. Absolutely. Do I support the licensure and health department testing sex workers at taxpayer expense? Absolutely. Do I support sex workers? Absolutely. But not street walking, not pimps, and not what’s happening on Shotwell and Capp.

    1. You say sex workers are the victims, but then you support the criminalization of some of the least well off among us?

      Thanks A LOT.

      Some of us don’t want any more “services” funded with stolen money, or the strings they come with – we just want to be left alone. Please stop using the misbehavior of some individuals as an excuse to stereotype and persecute an entire group of people!

      Calling the police on sex workers and their clients – they are clients, not “johns” – is not honorable.

      If you’re concerned about poo/pee and needles, why don’t you do something useful and campaign for toilets and places to dispose of syringes, instead of engaging in scapegoating?

  4. I agree with Gay mom to five. Let’s provide an indoor, safe work environment for anyone who wants to be a sex worker.

    I also want to express my gratitude to Cpt Caltagirone & his task force. Men with blasting music used to keep us up at all hours, on weekdays. All that has been gone since August 2018.

    To the sex workers supporters: how many of you live on the sex trafficking hot spot route in the Mission? Per my recollection on the RAD meeting, none present in that meeting raised a hand, when a neighbor asked this same question.

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